Karthik Sekar

I'm Karthik, a scientist by training in biochemical engineering and systems/quantitative biology. I've been keen on the Effective Altruism movement since first hearing about it on Sam Harris' podcast in 2016. I'm particularly motivated by the problem of farmed animal agriculture, and have steered my life and pursuits accordingly. I currently work as a Data Scientist at Climax Foods to develop next-generation vegan food products. And I've also authored a book about the impending end of animal agriculture--focusing on how poor and inefficient animals are as a production system (the "technological" argument against animal ag). Book is titled After Meat, and more info is here: https://aftermeatbook.com/

Topic Contributions

Comments

The Tipping Point Case for Vegan Advocacy

Thank you! I appreciate the kind words :)

Some thoughts on vegetarianism and veganism

Hi Richard, I recently wrote a post that tackles the concern on whether personal choice on veganism can have meaningful consequences: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/aMFFWhiQX5DvaZSDp/the-tipping-point-case-for-vegan-advocacy

Short answer, yes. Personal choices can help shift the S-curve for the transition, which has huge consequences. 

Science policy as a possible EA cause area: problems and solutions

Indeed. To be clear, when I refer to publications, I refer to traditionally published ones: where the papers are submitted to journals, editors will determine if it's impactful enough, and then it's sent out to review. This is such a belabored process, especially in the age of the internet. And for what it's worth, the competition is exacerbated by the lack of space in lofty journals. 

And sure, we can't jettison publications without something taking it's place. It still could be papers, just not traditionally published ones. We saw this play out during the pandemic where papers on Coronavirus were placed on pre-print servers such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv. Comments and refutations were posted in real-time. In my view, science needs to proceed in this direction. We need more real-time science. We can't have science that remains hidden from the public view because Reviewer #3 thinks one more experiment is needed, thus dragging out publication by another year. 

We're  not going to diminish competition without creating more permanent positions in academia or opportunities for academic scientists. Competition is so fierce to become a professor, which is in short supply and seemingly the only path to work permanently in academia. One idea is to have more non-traditional routes, such as a loftier, permanent post-doctoral scientist positions. These could be scientists who don't run a lab, but may work in one and do primary research themselves. 

Science policy as a possible EA cause area: problems and solutions

Thanks for this post. I agree with many of your points. I see science as a problem-solving engine, and yes, if it's not operating as well as it could be then that's a huge opportunity cost for issues such as treating diseases, transitioning to clean energy/meat, etc.

One thought about the publishing and incentives: If funders can be convinced not to care about publications or to weigh other efforts the same or more, e.g. posting and commenting on pre-prints, then that could break the strangle that the publishing industry holds on the scientific enterprise. Institutions mostly care about how well a researcher raises money. If they see that they can hire a professor who doesn't have lofty publications, but will have access to funding, then I suspect traditional publications will become increasingly moot. To a certain degree, we see this with Math and Physics, where many impactful papers just get published as pre-prints on ArXiV. The papers may never actually be traditionally published. 

Life sciences research still has a way to go. I was thinking if private funders such as HHMI or the Gates Foundation could be lobbied to weigh publications less in their funding decisions, then that may help here. 

AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

Private funding for alternative food is eye-popping, to say the least. "Buzzy" is a good descriptor :)

I hesitate to make any proclamations on what's too much or too little, as it does depend on the counterfactual. I think the problems that Beyond Meat are trying to solve are worthwhile. Giving them cheaper capital helps their efforts. Glad it's going there versus, say, Palantir. 

I spent Chapter 9 discussing specific funding opportunities, but I thought of a couple of ones since the book went to the presses:

  • Fundamental characterization of casein and casein micelles. Casein micelles impart the desired properties of cheese: the meltability, stretchiness, as well as the ability to form cheese curds. Much about casein biochemistry is just unknown: how do the different casein molecules form into the casein micelles? What are the caseins and micelles doing during the stretch process? These are questions that can be answered by academic efforts with modest funding (millions).
  • How should we tackle agriculture subsidies? In Chapter 10, I write about how intricate and interconnected the subsidies are. The tangled web makes it hard to know where even to start. Do we go for something big like crop insurances? Or something more tractable such as lobbying to exclude animal agriculture from the EQIP program, which helps them save money by getting funding for environmental compliance. (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/)
    If we could pay for a team to sit down and calculate all this, then I think that would pay dividends. It's boring and unsexy, but, man, it would be so impactful.
AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

The details will  matter as far as what will have the most impact.

If she's starting another plant-based burger or milk company, a la Beyond Meat or Oatly, then I'd say she can't add so much value because there's already a ton of activity solving that problem. But if she has novel solutions; for example, a new way to make semi-solid lipids at scale, then she can add a lot. Semi-solid lipids are a problem for nearly every alternative food effort; there two "natural" options with coconut oil and palm oil. Also, for what it's worth, many of these companies are struggling with hiring. So rather than starting her own startup, she could join and help an impactful one. That'd likely provide even more safety. 


And likewise, with the non-profit, the details matter too. I write that fighting agriculture subsidies is the biggest barrier to the alternative food revolution. At the time of writing, I couldn't find any organization addressing this problem specifically (likely because lobbying efforts are capped for non-profits). If our wunderkind is willing to tackle that, then she could have a substantial impact.

AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

The reports largely echo my worries about the tractability and feasibility of cultured (in vitro) meat. When I talked with my friend at GFI about it, she sent me this post that  GFI authored, in particular responding to the Counter article: https://gfi.org/cultivated/tea-statement/

The post indicates that there's more information beyond what's available publicly and that these companies and investors are well-versed with the challenges. I know the post rings of a "trust us; we know what we're doing" sentiment and asks for a lot to be taken at face value. So,  the Truth is out there, but, unfortunately, hidden under trade secrets.

As far resource allocation goes to have the most impact,  I wouldn't eliminate cultured meat funding completely, but I would reduce it compared to plant- and fermentation-based technology. It's hard to prognosticate how certain technologies will fare, and so I prefer a hedging, diversified portfolio approach. For that reason, it's good to have cultured meat R&D efforts. Cultured meat may even help in a specific way, such as supplying a few key ingredients but never forming into an entire meat replacement.

Secondly, it's clear that we just need more public disclosure in the cultured meat space. I wouldn't mind more academic efforts tackling the problems and publishing papers.