Afternoon Inquisition

AI: If You Had a Million Dollars

Amy is away fighting great white sharks with her bare hands as part of her people’s ancient rite of passage into adulthood, so I’ve taken over today’s Afternoon Inquisition, in which we pose a question to the Skepchick community. So:

If you had one million US dollars to donate to one area of scientific research, what would it be and why?

This question is inspired by this recently published paper on using organic materials as solar panels. I mentioned the idea during the SGU 24-hour vodcast . . . I knew of it from Andreas Mershin, a researcher who spoke about it during a Nature event in which he had to say what he’d do with a million dollars for his research. On SGU I mentioned that the benefit of this method is that the materials are easily sourced, but listener Abdellah wrote in to say this:

Hello fellow skeptics,

On the latest show, Rebecca claimed that the advantage of using organic materials in electronic devices is that these materials are more readily available. This was during the sci-fi-gadget-you’d-like-to-have-now section.

Organic electronics is rather about ease of processing. Silicon is one of the most abundant material on the planet, and wafer manufacturing is quite straightforward in this day and age. However, building circuits on Si remains tricky as we move towards ever smaller feature sizes. Using organic electronics, one can dissolve it and print (pretty much like a newspaper is produced) circuits. This process is superior to traditional electronics in that it doesn’t require ultra-clean facilities and the prohibitive investments that go with it.

These devices can be made on flexible substrates.

Anyway, I was listening to the show as I often do at the gym (wearing an SGU t-shirt!), and I thought I’d weight in. I’m a Ph.D. student in the field.

Keep up the awesome work! You’re making the world a better place.

Best,

/M.

Good points, and good timing!

But now over to you! I repeat:

If you had one million US dollars to donate to one area of scientific research, what would it be and why?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

Related Articles

45 Comments

  1. Electric motors and battery research most likely.

    Improving efficiencies in electrical motors will buy us some more time to improve and develop new ways of obtaining energy.
    Batteries to extend the range of electrical driven auto-vehicles so far as to finally start mass displacement of the fossil fuel engine auto-vehicles.
    I would give battery research priority maybe, but 50/50 split between those two.

    1. I’d go with education as well. But I’d fund basic research. There’s a huge gap between quantitative research in controlled conditions and qualitative research in classrooms. The first doesn’t readily translate to the real world of teaching, but gets cherry picked by pedagogues and politicians anyway, and the second is really vulnerable to bias even before the research is done, and then gets cherry picked by pedagogues and politicians.

      I need more than a million dollars though, since what I want to do is fund a dozen schools and run them according to different principles. I’d pick countries where not everyone gets schooling today so even the kids in the control group of “method I don’t believe is as good as the others” would get a huge benefit.

  2. Ditto on the battery research. Not that a million dollars would do very much. For a billion or two, you could actually hope for some progress!

    As for the organic electronics, don’t bother. I spent ten years working in the field and am convinced that it will never see wide adoption. The fundamental problem has always been, and continues to be, lack of performance. They may, possibly, be easier to process, but their performance relative to silicon and its related materials is simply atrocious. I don’t care how cheaply you can make a circuit if it performs calculations with the speed of an abacus. They’ve made some decent strides in terms of solar performance lately, but I am deeply skeptical of the organic solar folks ever attaining the needed durability for 10-20 year outdoor exposure. That’s hard enough with silicon-based PV!

    Now that I think about it more, I’d suggest that the most impact you could have with a million bucks in science would be to use it to provide scholarships in science to female and minority undergrads.

  3. Not so much research, but extraterrestial colonization. I’d love to see something like Mars Express happen, though I will freely admit to being utterly terrified of spaceflight… I watch Apollo 13, see all that empty held back by a few centimeters of aluminum, and I get the utter screaming heebeejeebees.

  4. Applied Sociology in the field of convincing people to STOP HAVING GINORMOUS FAMILIES. If there is one thing that could be done to save our planet it would be lowering the human population.

    Or maybe I should just spend the money on germ warfare….

  5. A million bucks isn’t enough to bother with for research. I think I’d rather go for an after-the-fact scholarship. Find a few worthy and promising grad students and pay off their student loans.

  6. Agreed that a million bucks does not buy much research. Mars? The James Webb Space Telescope is costing an estimated 8.7 Billion dollars, and that’s just earth orbit. In the world of government funding, 0.5 million to 1 million is often considered “seedling” money — if you get some results there may be more later. It often takes that much just to set up a lab.

    If I really had $1 million, I would probably give it away as a highly publicized prize (ala the X Prize) and hope the publicity was an incentive to companies to spend more than $1 million trying to achieve it.

    But what to fund? More efficient heating and air? Cheaper medical technology? Those would be incredibly useful, but not sexy. I feel like those are the responsible answers.

    The sexy stuff I like right now is Magneto Encephalography… People are doing amazing things right now with fMRI, and magneto encephalography would give much better data to work with, higher spatial and temporal resolution. That could lead to all kinds of medical breakthroughs, and it could really change our understanding of human nature itself…

    1. Of course a million isn’t going to buy much; on a corporate/institutional level, a million isn’t much at all. But I want humans to expand beyond our own planet. I want people on Mars before I die, and would love for there to be habitats in the Trojans soon after. And if I’ve got a million that has to go into science research… encouraging the expansion of humanity is something I have planned for my theoretical winning of the lottery.

  7. Another notion is that if one million dollars could cause a tipping point in the development of a particular technology as opposed to mearly supporting or advancing a field of science; I’d choose investing in the development of energy efficient large volume desalinization of sea water. I think that would be a world changer.

  8. Paying my salary for the next 10-20 years has to be a strong contender.

    Less egocentrically, I’d probably go for research into neglected tropical diseases, preferably in such a way as to build science expertise in the affected countries.

  9. Colorectal and anal cancer. Just because boobs are cooler to look at doesn’t mean that butthole cancer doesn’t deserve a brown ribbon, brown ribbon month, race for the browneye cancer cure, etc.

    More seriously, my mother-in-law was treated for colorectal cancer, and the radiation treatment burned her so badly that she needed a skin graft. It was so bad that she’s decided that if she’d diagnosed with cancer again, she’s going to refuse all treatment and try to die with dignity.

    So yeah, take the million and devote it to that.

  10. On a serious note, I’d invest in science education since research itself is pretty prohibitively expensive as others have noted. A million bucks is a drop in the bucket for a big project, but maybe a million bucks can make a huge difference to some budding geniuses in need of financial aid.

  11. Personally, I’d throw all my money at über-powerful telescopes, but that’s a bit selfish, as I would want to keep them in my backyard.

    For something humanitarian, I’d want to invest in water science. Clean drinking water + better water management.

  12. I think energy efficiency is very important, but I still dream of finding the way human memory works. I think instant data retrieval, and logical as well as creative processing, would greatly boost every investigative process that there is.

    Reading others’ ideas, I agree that supporting things that have gone some way already is a wise way to assure some success, but I am a dreamer and I like to do things the worst, longest and most tortuous way (so I can spend more time dreaming!).

  13. A cure for male pattern baldness… because an extra 1 million will make all the difference to the $50B they’ve spent already.

    Seriously though, I’d say researching ways to improve contraception would be the best: get the population growth under control and a lot of the current issues (land degradation, war, global warming etc) will be a lot easier to manage.

    Meepo!

    1. I hear that a lot about overpopulation, but it’s been recognized that a big part of the solution would be access to education and gender equality. In countries where women become more educated and have a say about their sexuality, they become less interested in having children, or they tend to have fewer.

      I know TLC would like to convince us that women want to have four sets of twins, but I’m pretty sure most of us would rather not breastfeed for a decade.

      1. A decade? I might have been up for that, breastfeeding was great. I only got to do about two years of it total and could have done with more. Oxytocin rushes and weight loss too, yay! It’s the decade of sleepless nights and dirty diapers I can do without.

        I like the idea of scholarships for promising students. A million is a drop in the bucket for most active fields of research, but for finding the right people to do the research in the future and getting them the education they need, a million is huge.

  14. The most efficient use of a million dollars might be to use it for lobbying money to get a lot more than a million dollars funded. Presumably though that answer isn’t the sort that is intended.

    I’d actually be tempted to make a bunch of separate small donations. There’s some evidence that the highest marginal return rate to science occurs with small grants. But again, this doesn’t seem to be what the question is asking.

    The question really seems to be about a single area of research. In that context, I’d have a few things.

    First, one obvious area is psychology. Good, rigorous psychology is very rare and it is an area that doesn’t get much money. A million dollars could go a long way to do a lot of interesting studies. One thing on the border of psychology and anthropology that might be interesting would be to do further work on cross-cultural responses to the Monty Hall problem. There have a been handful of such studies that strongly suggest that the failure to approach the Monty Hall problem correctly is cross-cultural and due to general human heuristics we use when approaching games and probability issues. But this work has been done almost uniformly with groups in various developed countries (e.g. the US, Britain, Brazil and China have all been used). It might be very interesting to take some form to other groups, and a million dollars seems like a reasonable cost estimate for that sort of thing.

    I’d also be tempted to give the money to research in some underfunded disease. There are extremely serious problems with underfunding of diseases. See e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326440/ and more research into those issues could be a good thing.

    I’d be tempted to also to use the money towards trying to anticipate existential risk threats. The Great Filter is really scary (although I think that most of the filtration is probably behind us). And I’m not sure that a million dollars can really do much. It seems that more brainstorming about these things isn’t really turning up much so this wouldn’t be that great a use of the resources, except in a general philosophical setting of helping answer why we seem to be alone.

    I guess of all of these the second is the one that would make me have the easiest time sleeping at night. If I gave the money to the psychologists I’d have fun, but I’d feel guilty about the lives I could save. And the third one while tempting probably just won’t do that much. So I think neglected diseases it is.

  15. With a million dollars, you should be able to set up a perpetual scholarship to pay a promising post grad student to work for one year. To be administered by a professional body.

    Which area would I choose?

    I want a virus that attacks fanatics – Christian, Muslim, you name it!

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close