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Fertility and Infertility: less related than you might think

Another reason to doubt the infertility-->declining birth rate story is that some populations that live in similar environments have maintained very high fertility rates.

Ultra Orthodox Jews live close to other city dweller in the US, have high-ish levels of obesity (implying similar food environment to average westerner, which is a reason to think Amish living as farmers might be exempt), and have high fertility rates.

Also, there are some factors, like much better treatment of STDs, that should, all other things being equal, reduce infertility rates. Historically, STDs could be a major cause of infertility.

Also, the relationship between sperm count and conception rates is not linear. IIRC, after about 20 million/ML, higher sperm counts don't mean higher conception rates. So a 25% reduction in sperm count might not have much effect on conception rates for most men above that threshold, if that decline is even real.

(Apologies for the lack of citations, on mobile, will link later)

The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition

Incremental Institutional Review Board Reform

Epistemic Institutions, Values and Reflective Process

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) regulate biomedical and social science research. In addition to slowing and deterring life-saving biomedical research, IRBs interfere with controversial but useful social science research, eg, Scott Atran was deterred from studying Jihadi terrorists; Mark Kleiman was deterred from studying the California prison system, and a Florida State University IRB cited public controversy as a reason to deter research. We would like to see a group focused on advocating for plausible reforms to IRBs that allow more social science research to be performed. Some plausible examples:

  1. Prof. Omri Ben-Shahar’s proposal to replace exempt IRB reviews with an electronic checklist or
  2.  Zachary Schrag’s proposal (from Ethical Imperialism) that Congress remove social science research from OHRP jurisdiction by amending the National Research Act of 1974. 

Concrete steps to these goals could be: 

  1. sponsoring a prize for the first university that allowed use of Prof. Omri Ben-Shahar’s electronic checklist tool;
  2.  setting up a journal for “Deterred Social Science Research”, in which professors publicly submit research proposals that their IRBs have rejected. 


The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition

Replacing Institutional Review Boards with Strict Liability

Biorisk, Epistemic Institutions, Values and Reflective Process

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) regulate biomedical and social science research. As a result of their risk-averse nature, important biomedical research is slowed or deterred entirely; eg, the UK human challenge trial was delayed by several months because of a protracted ethics review process and an enrollment delay in a thrombolytics trial cost thousands of lives. In the US, a plausible challenge to IRB legality can be mounted on First Amendment grounds. We would be interested in funding a civil rights challenge to IRB legality, with the eventual goal of FDA guidance on control groups and strict liability replacing IRBs as a means of research regulation. This would have substantial overlap with our project idea of rapid countermeasure development to new pathogens.


The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition

Slowing AI Contingency Planning

AI Governance

AI progress has been especially rapid over the last 4 years. Because of visible success in diverse tasks by OpenAI, DeepMind, and others, it is likely that even more money and talent will flow into accelerating AI progress in the future. However, there is substantial controversy over whether AI safety/alignment technology is advancing as quickly as capability. Given that, we are interested in funding work on 1) identifying nonviolent ways to reversibly slow AI progress and 2) more research into whether and when such an intervention would be net-good. 


The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

Glad you didn't see any factual error in the posts!

#1, Yeah, you're totally right that "bioethicists" is the wrong target. Will try to use "institutionalized research ethics" going forward. It is much more explicit about what the problem is and more fair to bioethicists. 

re #2, sort of agreed. I tend to think the public doesn't like weird ideas in general, but there was a recent paper showing higher public support for challenge trials than traditional trials. So I'm not sure what counts as weird to the public as a whole. It might be the case that the public has surprisingly EA-ish ideas on medical ethics, at least on this specific issue. Not sure. 

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

I'm the author of the blogposts and tweets (@willyintheworld). You raise a bunch of good points and you're 100% right that when I write "bioethicists" on twitter I should really write "institutionalized research ethics". Not doing do so is sloppy of me. I think I do a better job showing the institutional dynamics bioethicists work under in my blogposts, so I think those hold up okay. But I'll look at those posts again and see if I think they need some edits. 


Mostly agree with: "worth some eyebrow-raising if it turns out that the ingroup defense is something along the lines of “well, by bioethicists, we mean research ethicists, and by research ethicists we mean research bureaucrats, and by research bureaucrats, we mean research bureaucracy."


Your survey data on actual bioethicists' opinions was slightly surprising to me, so I should update on that.


My criticism of bioethics is aimed at bioethics-as-practiced-by-institutions, which does seem bad and deserve criticism, but you're right that the causal story here is definitely not [bioethicists are the sole reason big institutions are risk-averse] and so blaming only them doesn't make sense. My own posts basically argue that institutions use IRB's as a means of reputation/PR control, so in some sense I should exonerate bioethicists per se and focus on the institutional dynamics and laws that led to that equilibrium.


Incidentally, this does lead me to two points of possible (not sure of your views) disagreement:


  1. I think you're right that practically speaking, engagement with bioethicists is good. But if we take your point that institutionalized research ethics per se is the problem, not bad bioethicists, that suggests we should pay a lot of attention towards changing institutional dynamics, instead of just the opinions of the people inside them. In the case of institutional research ethics, that would look like advocating for specific changes in legislation or federal directives, so that institutional incentives change. In other words, arguing/discussing with bioethicists is good, but we should also try to change the law that leads to bad research ethics. It might be the case that institutional caution is the inevitable consequence of societal risk-tolerance declining and/or older institutions being cautious, but there still might be changes we can make at the margin.
  2. I'm not sure that some vaguely EA-ish/ EA-curious people criticizing bioethics is properly characterized as a "war". Even if it is, my really vague historical sense of political change is that reforming entrenched institutions (like research ethics) often requires relatively strong public disagreement and criticism. So I'm personally really unsure if your instrumental argument holds up. But this is pretty subjective, so I'm happy to mostly drop this because your other points on more accurate terminology and institutional dynamics are spot-on. 
Maybe Antivirals aren’t a Useful Priority for Pandemics?

Interesting though not super important piece of information: Rabies is ~100% fatal once symptoms present, but there is evidence that even without vaccination, some humans have been exposed and survived, they just didn't realize it. 

Maybe Antivirals aren’t a Useful Priority for Pandemics?

I was about to post this. There are now two effective antivirals for COVID-19, developed relatively quickly, which makes me update towards antiviral development being a little easier and more promising than I thought. 


In addition, the historic antivirals with great success are against HIV and Hepatitis C and are targeted against a chronic disease. Herpes and CMV have antiviral treatments and are somewhat more acute (though Herpes is a chronic disease with acute flare-ups), but COVID-19 is more acute than those two. 

So my skepticism towards effective antivirals for acute illnesses is lower than before.

EA Should Spend Its “Funding Overhang” on Curing Infectious Diseases

Hey, I'm working with Josh on an AMC project so I can answer this. 

 I don’t think it is actually a pessimistic paper for the pro-AMC case. The top-line result of “only 6 cents of additional R&D spending per dollar” is just part of the story. My summary of that paper:

  1. Finkelstein finds large benefits (billions of dollars worth) from the increases in coverage paid for at only moderate (in the tens of millions $ range) cost. This is the “static benefit” of increasing vaccine coverage given the generally large benefits of higher vaccination rates.
  2. Finkelstein looks at Hepatitis B and the flu vaccine more closely and basically concludes (A) that the induced increase in R&D for Hep-B was useless because the existing vaccine was already excellent (90% efficacy, few side effects), so it couldn’t be much improved upon, but (B) that the flu vaccine R&D was very useful, somewhere in the billions range, because it likely caused the development of the newer flu vaccine, which is apparently quite a bit more effective. This is the “dynamic benefit” of increased R&D causing an improvement in vaccine efficacy. 

I think the take-away is that if AMC’s act like the instrument Finkelstein uses here, we shouldn’t expect an AMC to stimulate a lot more private pharma investment, but they could still be very cost-effective if they resulted in an efficacious vaccine or if they sped up rollout. Notably, speeding up rollout is basically what Finkelstein found happened with the Hepatitis B vaccine.  

So AMC’s could still be very cost-effective if the vaccine developed is effective and/or roll-out is sped up, as in the GAVI Pneumococcus AMC case. 

Another factor is that Finkelstein examined the effects of increased revenue on already existing vaccines, while the proposed AMC's would mostly be focused on new vaccines.

 My guess is that if Finkelstein found a big dynamic benefit from more R&D in the flu vaccine case just by a moderate increase in vaccine efficacy, then going from 0 efficacy (no vaccine) to moderate/substantial efficacy (new vaccine with vaccine efficacy of 75%) would yield large dynamic benefits. But I might be misunderstanding this part- not super confident in this. 

We'll also be doing some more reading into the literature on AMC impact this week and next so we'll post about it next week.

Robin Hanson on the Long Reflection

It seems unlikely but not impossible given how strong status quo bias is among humans. NIMBY movement, reactionary and conservative politics in general, lots of examples of politics that call for less or no change. 

Humans have had periods of tens or hundreds of thousands of years where we stagnate and technology doesn't seem to change much, as far as we can tell from the archaeological record, so this isn't unprecedented. 

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