Podcast: Prof David Spiegelhalter on risk, statistics and improving the public understanding of science

My colleague Jess Whittlestone and I spoke with Prof David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Spiegelhalter tries to help people prioritise and respond to the many hazards we face, like getting cancer or dying in a car crash. To make the vagaries of life more intuitive he has had to invent concepts like the microlife, or a 30-minute change in life expectancy. He’s regularly in the UK media explaining the numbers that appear in the news, trying to assist both ordinary people and politicians to make sensible decisions based in the best evidence available.

We wanted to learn whether he thought a lifetime of work communicating science had actually had much impact on the world, and what advice he might have for people planning their careers today.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or by searching 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts. Links and a transcript are below.

“…What do we hear in the news? We hear about Ebola, we hear about terrorism, we hear about the latest threat that might be in what we eat and the way we travel, and we get very concerned about this, whether it’s a plane crash or whatever. Because that’s what’s in the news, that’s what is available to us. That’s what’s so prominent, but of course, so many of these risks are actually very small indeed…

What I am proud of is being part of a general community that’s very strong in Britain, to do with public engagement in science, which I’m just a small part of that because it covers material on the radio, stuff on television, stuff in some newspapers, and in various agencies. For example, in Statistics Authority, which is just trying to take a much more critical attitude to the way that numbers and evidence are used in society. I think it works. In Britain, we’re rather good compared with most people about, I don’t know, we don’t have these massive fears of vaccinations and nuclear power, of even GMOs. I think this is a sign that we in this country have developed quite a good public engagement with science community.”

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Are too many people going into biomedical research – or too few?

Are too many people going into biomedical research or too few? As we explore in our new review of the career there are probably too many people entering the field. Biomedical research is a very promising way to make the world a better place if you have a high chance of being a top researcher, but for most people it’s a very tough road and entering could be a costly mistake. In the rest of the post, we’ll explain why and help you figure out whether it might be for you.

Biomedical research is a good path—if you’re a good fit.

We sometimes encounter people who might be a good fit for biomedical research, but who are skeptical about its potential impact. We think this might be misguided because:

  1. There are exciting areas of research that could offer enormous upside, such as anti-aging research, neural implants, gene therapy and synthetic biology.
  2. Potentially very high returns to research with comparatively low costs. According to one estimate, the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in the US in the 1970’s and 1980’s alone had $31 trillion of associated gains. This is on the order of 60 times as large as all spending on medical research over the period. Another analysis estimates that a 1% reduction in cancer mortality in the US would be worth $500 billion (in comparison,

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Get paid to do existential risk reduction research

cser

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) is hiring for postdoctoral researchers. Existential risk reduction is a high-priority area on the analysis of the Global Priorities Project and GiveWell. Moreover, CSER report that they have had a successful year in grantwriting and fundraising, so the availability of research talent could become a significant constraint over the coming months. Here is Sean’s announcement:

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (University of Cambridge; http://cser.org) is recruiting for postdoctoral researchers to work on the study of extreme risks arising from technological advances. We have several specific projects we are recruiting for: responsible innovation in transformative technologies; horizon-scanning and foresight; ethics and evaluation of extreme technological risks, and policy and governance challenges associated with emerging technologies.

However, we also have the flexibility to hire one or more postdoctoral researchers to work on additional projects relevant to CSER’s broad aims, which include impacts and safety in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, biosecurity, extreme tail climate change, geoengineering, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. We welcome proposals from a range of fields. The study of technological x-risk is a young interdisciplinary subfield, still taking shape. We’re looking for brilliant and committed people, to help us design it. Deadline: April 24th. Details here, with more information on our website.

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The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours

Tim2

Tim Harford recently spoke to us at Oxford. He’s a journalist for the Financial Times and the best-selling author of the Undercover Economist, which we’d recommend as a popular introduction to Economics. He also wrote Adapt, which argues that trial and error is the best strategy for solving important global problems. The arguments he makes fit with some of the arguments we have made for trial and error being a good way to plan your career.

Tim gave a talk on innovation, similar to this. The talk introduced a distinction between two types of innovation, and asks, which one is more important?

  1. Marginal improvements – incremental improvements to existing systems.

  2. Revolutionary improvements – transformations of existing systems to create new ones.

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In which career can you make the most difference?

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Introduction

Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.

Summary

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

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Interview with leading HIV vaccine researcher – Prof. Sir Andrew McMichael

Introduction

Andrew McMichael

Continuing our investigation into medical research careers, we interviewed Prof. Andrew McMichael. Andrew is Director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, and focuses especially on two areas of special interest to us: HIV and flu vaccines.

Key points made

  • Andrew would recommend starting in medicine for the increased security, better earnings, broader perspective and greater set of opportunities at the end. The main cost is that it takes about 5 years longer.
  • In the medicine career track, you qualify as a doctor in 5-6 years, then you work as a junior doctor for 3-5 years, while starting a PhD. During this time, you start to move towards a promising speciality, where you build your career.
  • In the biology career track, get a good undergraduate degree, then do a PhD. It’s very important to join a top lab and publish early in your career. Then you can start to move towards an interesting area.
  • After you finish your PhD is a good time to reassess. It’s a competitive career, and if you’re not headed towards the top, be prepared to do something else. Public health is a common backup option, which can make a significant contribution. If you’ve studied medicine, you can do that. People sometimes get stranded mid-career, and that can be tough.
  • An outstanding post-doc applicant has a great reference from their PhD supervisor, is good at statistics/maths/programming, and has published in a top journal.
  • If you qualify in medicine in the UK, you can earn as much as ordinary doctors while doing your research, though you’ll miss out on private practice. In the US, you’ll earn less.
  • Some exciting areas right now include stem cell research, neuroscience, psychiatry and the HIV vaccine.
  • To increase your impact, work on good quality basic science, but keep an eye out for applications.
  • Programming, mathematics and statistics are all valuable skills. Other skills shortages develop from the introduction of new technologies.
  • Good researchers can normally get funded, and Andrew would probably prefer a good researcher to a half million pound grant, though he wasn’t sure.
  • He doesn’t think that bad methodology or publication bias is a significant problem in basic science, though it might be in clinical trials.

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A comparison of medical research and earning to give

Introduction and Summary

We recently did a case study with Ramit (see the full case study write up here). He was wondering whether to start a medicine degree, with the aim of going into research, or to continue in finance doing earning to give, where he already has a job as a quant researcher earning in the range of $150,000 per year.

We did an in-depth comparison of the expected impact of the two paths to help him decide. The rest of this post contains our case study research notes on the comparison.

If forced to guess now, we lean in favor of earning to give, though we think it’s very high priority to gain more information. Ramit is going to try to better assess his degree of fit with medical research, perhaps by working as a researcher during the summer, and learn more about his earnings prospects in finance by making applications and speaking to a headhunter. We’ll review our decision when we find out more.

In the rest of the post, we explain our reasoning:

  1. We outline our general approach
  2. We define a number of factors to compare the two options
  3. We evaluate the two paths based on the factors
  4. We make our overall conclusions

Note that there were several potentially important issues we didn’t address, including job satisfaction and which path is best for career capital in careers besides finance and research.

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Interview with malaria vaccine researcher Katie Ewer

Introduction

A recent case study candidate asked us whether he should enter vaccine research. As part of our research for that study, we contacted the Jenner Institute, an international centre based in Oxford that develops vaccines for infectious diseases . Our aim was to interview one of the scientists to better understand how careers in this sector tend to go, and to get their thoughts on a variety of important questions (especially those concerning vaccines) for our case study candidate to cross-check against other interviews we have done with medical researchers.

Katie Ewer, a cellular immunologist based at the Institute, agreed to talk to us. We sent her a list of questions by email (see the appendix), and discussed them on Skype. Below, we present a summary of her responses and key quotes from the Skype call.

Key updates for us

  • Katie was less keen on starting your career by studying medicine than our previous interview, because she didn’t think the benefits are worth the lost time, which made us less certain about this question.
  • We updated slightly in favor of the idea that most of the benefits of doing vaccine research on a specific disease are flow through effects i.e. advances in one vaccine have many benefits for other vaccines, reducing pandemic risk, and medical research more generally. This suggests that ability at research is relatively more important than the priority of the research question than we previously thought.
  • Katie suggested without prompting that research into neglected tropical diseases might be particularly neglected, which fits with previous research done by Giving What We Can into the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
  • Katie, as with everyone else we’ve spoken to, said that strong motivation by the subject is very important, because the work is tough and the pay is low.
  • Katie thought that the vast majority of people would be better off supporting research through earning to give than by becoming researchers, though talented people should do research, which fits with our view.
  • A useful way to test out a medical research career is to take a research assistant job over the summer.
  • We found that careers in medical research might be more flexible than we had first thought.

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Interview with a Cambridge Professor of Medical Genetics on research careers

Introduction

I recently interviewed John Todd, a Professor of Medical Genetics at Cambridge, as part of a series of interviews we’re carrying out for a case study. The aim of the series is to find out what key people in the field think about:

  1. What opportunities are best in the medical research field?
  2. What’s the balance between talent constraints and funding constraints?
  3. Who’s a good fit for medical research?
  4. Would our case study candidate be a good fit?
  5. How to go about this kind of career

Summary

The main points made in this interview were:

  1. John would prefer a good person in his lab to an extra £0.5mn in annual funding. Generally, there are enough grants, so finding good people is a bigger constraint than money.
  2. People with both medical knowledge with statistical and programming skills are highly sought after.
  3. Within medical research, it’s not straightforward to try to “pick” an area to work on and it changes quickly, though there are some broad strategies to use (e.g. pick diseases neglected by pharma, take a longer term perspective, avoid bandwagons)
  4. If you want to fund medical research, it would be difficult to beat going with the Wellcome Trust or Gates Foundation. Likewise, if you want to find the best areas to work on, these foundations are a good start.
  5. Getting an MD, then doing a PhD as a registrar is a good way in. If you have programming and statistics, you don’t need the PhD.
  6. He prefers Academia to Pharma.

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Why I’m doing a PhD

I’ve just started a PhD in Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. People who have thought hard about how to make a difference seem to disagree about the value of PhDs. Having thought about this quite thoroughly for my own situation, I’ve decided to write up my decision process. Hopefully some of the considerations that were relevant for me will be generally applicable and useful to others making similar decisions.

Summary

Essentially, I’m doing a PhD because:

  • I want to use my career to do as much good as I can. However, I’m quite uncertain about which causes are most important and what I should do with my career long term. This means I want to spend the next few years learning and building “career capital” to keep my options open for whatever is highest impact later.

  • I believe that the PhD I’m doing is the best way for me to do this right now because:

  • It gives me the opportunity to build skills across a variety of disciplines/areas, whilst expanding my network and also giving me credentials that will help me later

  • At the same time, the research itself could be valuable – I’ve got a lot of flexibility with what I focus on, within an area that has the potential to be very important and useful (improving rationality/decision making)

  • I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to work on other high impact projects during the next few years alongside my PhD – volunteering for 80,000 Hours being just one example

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Is most research a waste?

Worldwide, over US$100 billion is invested every year in supporting biomedical research, which results in an estimated 1 million research publications per year

A recently updated systematic review of 79 follow-up studies of research reported in abstracts estimated the rate of publication of full reports after 9 years to be only 53%.

An e?cient system of research should address health problems of importance to populations and the interventions and outcomes considered important by patients and clinicians. However, public funding of research is correlated only modestly with disease burden, if at all.

Research_waste

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3 Ways to Advance Science

There are three ways to contribute to scientific progress. The direct way is to conduct a good scientific study and publish the results. The indirect way is to help others make a direct contribution. Journal editors, university administrators and philanthropists who fund research contribute to scientific progress in this second way. A third approach is to marry the first two and make a scientific advance that itself expedites scientific advances. The full significance of this third way is commonly overlooked.

Formula

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How to do important research

Many academics want to do important research that makes the world a better place. Unfortunately, there’s virtually no guidance out there.

We’re aiming to build a resource of strategies and ideas for finding high impact research questions, as well as practical information about how to get involved with them.

In this post, we take a first step and explore how to find research questions that need your talent.

Laboratory_beaker

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How to be a high impact philosopher

Philosophy is often impractical. That’s an understatement. It might therefore be surprising to think of a career as a philosopher as a potentially high impact ethical career – the sort of career that enables one to do a huge amount of good in the world. But I don’t think that philosophy’s impracticality is in the nature of the subject-matter. In fact, I think that research within certain areas of philosophy is among some of the most important and practical research that one can do. This shouldn’t be surprising when one considers that philosophy is the only subject that addresses directly the fundamental practical question: what ought I to do?

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