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Comment Re:Open source isn't the exception, it's the norm (Score 1) 10

It seems to me that fewer people may want to contribute to the effort if they think their freely-contributed work could be subsumed by a patent fence that (e.g.) GlaxoSmithKline might decide to slap around a derivative discovery.

In practice, you are almost certainly incorrect. Scientists working in basic research - the ones I've met, anyway - are almost universally thrilled if their research leads to improvements in human health, regardless of whether or not they or someone else profits from it. (In fact, I was unhappy working as a developer on an academic project that was partly funded by charging companies for access to our software - I thought we should just give it away, because I wanted as many people as possible to use my work.) I have no fondness for GSK or any other big pharma company - quite frankly, they're a pain in the ass to deal with - but the extent to which they leech off public discoveries is vastly overstated, and they perform a huge amount of very expensive and very boring work to bring drugs to market. This combination of publicly-funded basic research and privately-funded development is one of the primary justifications for the existence of the NIH and on the whole it works relatively smoothly, although the perverse incentives of the Bayh-Dole act are problematic.

Comment Re:It will not spur anything other than greed. (Score 1) 10

Much of the primary research into the HCV rna structure and thus the secondary chemical binding processes was done on the public purse

A huge fraction of it was done privately as well, but that's still just one tiny piece in a much larger project. Solving a structure isn't that difficult or expensive for a well-validated experimental system, and the end result helps you guess at what chemical syntheses to try, but actually putting something on the market takes the better part of a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars - and a huge fraction of the time it will fail anyway. It is almost guaranteed that Gilead spent at least $100 million developing their new HCV drug, and you have to add to that an even larger amount of money spent trying stuff that didn't work, which they still need to recoup somehow. I have no idea whether this justifies their selling price or not, but the claim that it cost the company "very small amounts of money" is complete nonsense.

Comment Re:Open source isn't the exception, it's the norm (Score 1) 10

I agree that this isn't an extraordinary example, but I have to take issue with this:

the general rule is that all the data goes public and that all the code written is open source

The first part is correct in the literal sense (this is an absolute requirement of public funding agencies and journals), but that doesn't mean they're unencumbered by patents. The second part, unfortunately, is incorrect: open source is getting more common and scientists are slowly coming around to the idea that this shouldn't be optional, but there are plenty of examples of closed-source software being developed by academic groups, and many more examples where the code is available but not redistributable. Only in the last few years did the NIH start to explicitly state that openness of source code would be a consideration in evaluating grant applications for computational (biomedical) R&D.

Comment Re:I'll believe it when I see it.... (Score 1) 52

Too often these promising studies generate all kinds of hype

This is largely the fault of institutional PR offices - university press releases are notorious for inflating the importance of even the most minor discovery, and their take is what gets reported. (Which isn't to say that scientists aren't complicit, but most of us have sufficient self-awareness to cringe when we read these articles.)

Comment Re:Now let's wait and see (Score 1) 48

But we keep seeing these big, game-changing announcements out of "eastern" medical researchers. Only to have them turn out to be massive frauds.

This isn't a "game-changing" announcement, not the way (for instance) various stem-cell-related discoveries were. It's an impressive technical accomplishment, and it certainly expands our understanding of this system, but it's nothing revolutionary or unforseen, and it's also really "basic" in the sense of "basic research" - foundational, not applied.

Comment Re:This kind of stuff is Exhibit #1 (Score 1) 282

Either way, this is possibly further damning evidence (albeit anecdotal) giving rise to the notion that the US being a free society is a romanticized pipe dream.

Only if you completely disregard free will. No one is pointing a gun at my head and telling me to view the news outlets you are complaining about, and I ignore most of them entirely (I don't even have cable, or a working TV for that matter). Unlike many other countries, there is no government entity blocking me from consuming contrarian and/or foreign news sources. And last time I checked, there were plenty of news sources (foreign and domestic) that were happy to tell me the "truth", or their own preferred version of it. (Remember, for every American who thinks the country can do no wrong, there's someone else who think it's responsible for everything bad that happens, and isn't shy about saying so.)

If you are unhappy that a large fraction of Americans is content to take everything they see on Fox News as incontrovertible truth, well, join the club. Most people simply aren't that smart or thoughtful, and that goes for every other country in the world, not just the US.

Comment Re:Remember when America had science? (Score 1) 48

This is just nonsensical. The vast majority of articles like this still come from the US/EU/Japan, and most of the technology was developed outside China. In fact, the only reason they're able to do this kind of research is that the last few years have seen exceptional improvements in molecular EM due to a combination of better software and direct electron detectors. In fact, I looked through their methods, and they're using a microscope made by a US/international company, a detector from Japan, and software written in the US and UK. The hardware just requires sufficient funding, the software is free.

So these papers aren't particularly innovative; they're high-profile because it's an important scientific question, but it was only a matter of time before someone decided to tackle it (and only in the last few years has it really been possible). There are generally more questions like this than people who have time to answer them, so it's really easy (intellectually speaking) to pick a random problem, throw money at it, and collect the Science/Nature/Cell paper. And that's kind of the state a lot of Chinese research is in.

I don't mean to sound critical of this work itself - it looks very solid and Yigong Shi has an excellent reputation (he used to be in the US). But all it proves is that China can do research on par with other industrial nations when it wants to.

Comment Re:Remember when America had science? (Score 1) 48

We still do. It's just that many of those scientists end up going back to their home country to be back with family.

Yigong Shi was in fact a tenured professor at Princeton until a few years ago. I think the Chinese gov't. basically threw gobs of money at him to move to Tsinghua. Before, he was just one of many excellent structural biologists in the US; now, he's arguably the foremost Chinese structural biologist. (Downside: exchanging Princeton faculty meetings for CCP oversight; I'm not sure which sounds worse to me.)

Comment Re:Why live there then? (Score 1) 80

Can you live in the Bay Area taking home 42k/year?

I did for years (also working for the state). I was living here for nearly a decade before I made more than that, in fact; as a grad student my stipend was less than $20k. I have no dependents or debts to pay off, no severe medical conditions, and my benefits were always sufficient, so it was actually very easy. I lived alone for the majority of that time, but even when I shared houses or apartments it was in relatively nice neighborhoods. (All rental, of course.) Until recently I was always living very close to where I worked. I usually had at least a little disposable income and by the time I was taking home more than $30K I was saving some of it.

That said, I live in the East Bay, not SF proper, so my rents are merely extortionate but not totally unaffordable. $42K won't go very far if you want to live in the Mission - and 10 years ago, it wasn't totally unrealistic for a (childless) grad student to have that ambition.

Honestly, from what I've seen I think senior government-employed or government-funded scientists in the Bay Area mostly get paid enough already (and I would include myself in that category until very recently). It's definitely more than we'd get in another part of the country, and we/they get to play with a lot of very cool (and very expensive) toys. But the cost of living is a huge problem for recruiting; a UC Berkeley professor of my acquaintance told me they were finding it increasingly difficult to hire new faculty because they'll never be able own a home anywhere close to Berkeley itself.

Comment Re:Time to recompile humanity (Score 1) 62

Yea just like non-coding DNA is junk. Does every generation have to make the same hubristic errors?

You're grossly overstating the case here. The fact that non-coding DNA contains essential regulatory information has been known for many decades, long before the modern age of genomics. The label "junk" was applied because nobody knew what most of that DNA did, and it obviously has very low information content compared to genes. But this pejorative never stopped people from studying it or trying to figure out what role it played - of course it imposes a significant metabolic cost on the organism, so why keep it around? We just haven't had mature tools to study it until relatively recently. Despite some sensationalism to the contrary, it's still far from resolved whether and how much it is functional; the best-supported hypothesis that I'm aware of is that it's structurally important and facilitates the 3D organization of the genome in cells in such a way that enhances regulatory control. We certainly don't have any clue how to derive therapeutic applications from our knowledge, unlike coding DNA (i.e. translated into proteins that most drugs target).

The claim that "mainstream biologists assumed that noncoding DNA was junk, and therefore asked the wrong questions" is simplistic nonsense at best, and creationist propaganda at worst. Scientific investigation - especially biology - proceeds on the basis of incomplete evidence all the time, because we have no choice (among other lacunae, we still don't understand what half of all human genes actually do). And unexpected new discoveries or inventions shake up molecular biology on a fairly regular basis - 10-15 years ago, RNA interference was thought to be equally revolutionary. So we always hope for surprises (all research faculty at major universities fantasize about making discoveries like Crispr/Cas), but we have to concentrate on areas of study that we feel are most likely to yield actual results.

Comment Re:If it ever takes off, no stopping it (Score 1) 62

I sort of despise the idea of patenting features of nature

I'm not sure I would call the therapeutic applications of Crispr/Cas a "feature of nature". Any actual therapy is going to consist of, at a minimum, a combination of synthetic RNA and orthologously expressed Cas9 (probably heavily engineered). This isn't something that exists naturally in humans. I'm generally pretty conservative about what I would consider patentable (software, or "all drugs targeting this protein", are not included), and, frankly, I think it would be better for everyone if the patents around Crispr/Cas were limited to specific treatments rather than the general concept. But regardless, any useful therapies are going to involve a great deal of engineering and trial-and-error - and clinical testing, which is going to be the most expensive part. What's the incentive to spend money on this if China ends up copying it? Don't say "for the good of humanity" - if that were the primary goal, money would be far better spent curing various endemic infectious diseases.

Comment Re:Agree and disagree here (Score 1) 275

This is in fact how the soviet union was able to compete for so long, but eventually it could not keep increasing the amount of resources that it mobilized.

I almost mentioned Russia in my comment - there was a time in the 1930s, when the US and Europe were stuck in the Depression, many Westerners thought that communism might end up totally eclipsing their (at the time) failed economies. And the USSR did grow from a nation of mostly peasants into an industrial superpower incredibly quickly. China has done much better so far, in large part because it mostly integrated with the global economy which was quick to take advantage of the cheap labor. But it is also making some of the same mistakes, as demonstrated by the "ghost cities", or the high-speed rail crash.

It is capitalism that more effectively makes better and better uses of the resources that are available, and its driven by greed.

I wouldn't say "greed", although that term certainly does apply in many cases; I would call it self interest, which isn't the same thing. The fact that our behavior (and economic activity) is greatly affected by incentives doesn't mean that we're greedy or foolish, it means we're human. It's amazing how many people on both the left and the right ignore this when it doesn't align nicely with their preferred policy goals.

Comment Re:Agree and disagree here (Score 1) 275

These things, combined with a population advantage, guarantee China's success long-term absent any other forces.

Only up to a point. Part of the reason why China has been enjoying enormous rates of economic growth is that it had so far to go. Once their economy and standard of living starts to get much closer to that of the existing advanced industrial economies, and they lose their advantage of cheap labor, all they're left with is the population advantage. And they'll be busy strip-mining the third world in the meantime, which means they'll probably overreach sooner or later and piss everyone off as badly as the US has. (And the US at least has NATO allies, and reasonably friendly relations with neighboring countries.)

Comment Re:Waste of Time & Money (Score 1) 275

I don't think the GP was limiting the scope to science missions - instead, we should also be developing robotic missions to prepare for eventual humans. And more than just robots; even stuff as relatively trivial as 3D printers will make the difference between sustainable human presence versus short-term missions that won't last. There are many other components: better radiation shielding, genetically optimized plants, improved solar cells, and so on.

Remember, ISS is only a few hundred feet up and it's still insanely expensive to service. If we want affordable permanent settlement on the moon or Mars, we need to limit the number of supply trips.

Comment Re:instead of space race (Score 1) 275

A big part of the reason why this won't happen is that space-related technology tends to be inherently dual-use, i.e. much of it has military purposes. In fact, that's probably the single biggest reason why there was a space race at all in the 1950s/1960s. Since China is already known to be developing military capabilities specifically to counter the US navy/naval air, and has ongoing territorial disputes with at least five neighboring countries that I can think of offhand (several of which are close US allies), it would be ill-advised of the US to make it easier for them.

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