Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I should've been an economist

Had I read Asimov’s The Foundation series when I was in high school, or had I met an economist who was not a banker or a financial advisor but an economic theorist, I most likely would have chosen economics as a career option.

As it turned out, back in high school I thought economics is a boring field of stiff accountants, where you learn how to balance books and make investments. Since I equated money with vulgar incentives, a man-made device meant for corrupting the mind, I avoided all contact with economics though some contact with money was pleasurable. I knew no better until my late 30s, when I chanced upon Amartya Sen’s articles in the Scientific American.

Having always had that love for neat theories with the power of explaining large things, I gravitated towards biology because I thought the complexity of biology is ripe for theory. I was mistaken. In biology nearly anything goes. Evolution finds one solution among many. There are very few general principles.

Surely there are some principles. Evolution by natural selection on rare spontaneous variants is a powerful principle. Then the idea of information as an organizing principle is another. Coding theory. Mendel’s laws and Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Haldane’s rule. But these can be counted on one’s digits.

This general lack of theories gave biology its charms too. Just when I think of myself as so clever having figured out something, there comes the unexpected surprise. During my own career there were many such surprises. Splicing; RNA enzymes; PCR (dang! I should’ve thought ‘bout it!!); combinatorial design; miRNA. Perhaps the prion fold as a “bit-flipping” memory molecule is just over the horizon; hope it turns out to be true.

Biotechnology has profited from these unexpected insights in due courses, and more will surely come. It is even more surprising how staid most research in successful biotech companies usually is, and, paradoxically, how invigorating research can be in many unsuccessful biotech companies. This happens so much so that some say, for a biotech company to succeed one doesn’t need good science. One only needs simple, practical solutions and managed development.

Nothing can be further than the truth. The truth is that one never knows what would succeed. So the initial investment, at least in terms of time, must be long and tolerant of blind alleys—merely because there are very few theories in biology—there is only chance and surprise—there are few principled risk factor calculators, unlike in hedge fund investment. When one doesn’t know what will work, the best that one can do is to nurture the creative energy of the scientists. Less the management, more the nurture, the better. Scientists in powerful positions in biotech know this well. Managers in powerful position rarely appreciate this. Venture capital fund managers are even less tolerant. The balance between the next quarter’s books and the creative energy of science is a tough one to achieve; tough to tolerate the latter in the absence of a theory.

Nothin’ beats the austere satisfaction of constructing a purely algebraic formalism of a paradox, resolving it by logic, and finding its application to a thing as complicated as the voting behavior of people; as Arrow’s impossibility theorem shows, for example. Imagine an ‘impossibility theorem for a peptide drug for HIV-AIDs treatment’!

I should’ve been an economist.


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