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Analog Angle Blog

COVID-19 vaccines and the science of objective and mandated progress

As I write this, shipments of the first vaccine for the COVID-19 treatment are underway. It’s an amazing research and manufacturing undertaking, no question about it. I am sure the details of how it was done will be the subject of articles, conference papers, books, perhaps a movie, and even major scientific prizes. And they should be.

Even if not entirely successfully, what they have done is truly admirable and impressive at each step. It helps that they had a clearly defined objective, and with a deadline of “as soon as possible,” even everyone recognized there could be no guarantees as to when “success” would be reached.

But there’s a difference between an objective and mandated “progress.” In recent years, governments at all levels have mandated improvements in initiatives such as automotive fuel economy, the amount of electricity to be generated from renewable sources, the number of EVs and HEVs, and more. Some of these goals are achievable—at least in principle—by spending more money, but some may not be realistic even with money. After all, how can you absolutely assure that the mileage of an internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicle reaches a specific number by a certain date? Sure, you can try to reach it, but there’s no assurance.

Progress by decree

I am not here to argue about the virtue of higher fuel-economy standards or related energy-saving projects—that’s a topic for another time. However, setting strict technical goals by fiat is at odds with the genuine path of research, development, and product reality. It’s nice to have goals, of course, but when they become “meet them by decree,” it’s almost like trying to define that π should be set to 3.0 because that makes things so much easier than 3.14159.

There’s another reason to be skeptical. Research often leads to unexpected opportunities, and the various synergies among apparently unrelated advances are not predictable. Consider this one case: when Isidor I. Rabi discovered nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in 1937 wherein atomic nuclei indicate their presence by absorbing or emitting radio waves when exposed to a sufficiently strong magnetic field (for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944).

Figure 1 The precession of atomic nuclei in a magnetic field—called nuclear magnetic resonance—is the key to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Source: My-ms.org

At the time, no one said, “great, now we can finally make an MRI machine.” Even the basic idea of using this obscure deep-physics phenomenon to create an MRI-based imaging system was not apparent until around 1970 (Reference 1), with the prototype MRI demonstrated in 1977 (Reference 2).

Figure 2 The first human MRI scanner machine, constructed and demonstrated in 1977; showing, left to right, R. Damadian, L. Minkoff, and M. Goldsmith. Source: FONAR Corp.

The mandated progress

How did we get into this situation of mandated, scheduled progress? I see several reasons:

First, technologists—engineers, scientists, and material experts—have actually achieved so many technical miracles over the past few decades that it has made almost anything look doable and easy. Look back 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years at the state of consumer electronics or technology infrastructure and you will be stunned.

Second, the lure of the big-grant funding for R&D, mostly from the government, has spawned a symbiotic relationship in which one side says, “here’s a lot of money, can you get to us where we want to go?” The other side—industry and academics—responds, “you give us the money and we’ll get you there, no problem.”

Finally, we did it to ourselves another way. How so? Largely by publicly hyping the industry roadmaps, initially promoted several decades ago by semiconductor vendors such as Intel, but now a standard part of almost any technology story. 5G is a case in point. Sure, it’s essential to have one internally for planning purposes, but it has had some adverse external consequences due to the mindset it has established as it has been publicized and promoted.

What the roadmap says is that we know where we are going, we know how to get there, and it’s just a matter of applying ourselves, spending the money, hiring the people, working hard and diligently. Poof, we’ll get there, no problem. It makes R&D and progress seem very linear, deterministic, and straightforward.

Reality is that progress has hope, anticipation, false starts, diversions, random walks, insurmountable barriers, and major disruptive developments. The vacuum-tube roadmap of 1950 did not show transistors and the transistor roadmap of 1960 did not show integrated circuits. As we all know: stuff happens, both good and bad, even as you are following your roadmap and promising to reach Emerald City by a certain time.

Mandates and directives don’t change this reality. Keep this in mind next time the bureaucrats and legislators mandate where a technology and product will be at a certain time, and what it will do.

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References

  1. My-MS.org, “Physics of MRI – Detailed
  2. R. Damadian, “Field-focusing n.m.r (FONAR) and the formation of chemical images in man,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 1980

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