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What should we expect from ARPA-H?

by ChristianKl1 min read19th May 202111 comments

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The Biden administration pretends at the moment that they want to create a new organization that works like Darpa and that's more open to innovation the way Darpa is more open to innovation. The announcement reads:

Launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). The discretionary request calls for $6.5 billion to launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With an initial focus on cancer and other diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s, this major investment in federal research and development will drive transformational innovation in health research and speed application and implementation of health breakthroughs. 

Part of what makes Darpa special that it's not told by politicians to focus on the problems that are most obvious to the politicians but is more free about chosing politicians. Focus on Cancer/Diabetes/Alzheimer's suggest that's not the case here as those are the traditional targets of NIH funding anyway. Does anybody have a more optimistic take on the annoucement and expect it to actually produce an organization that's comparable to DARPA? 

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When DARPA was founded it was explicitly under political authority. "The Agency shall be responsible for the direction or performance of such advanced projects in the field of research and development as the Secretary of Defense shall, from time to time, designate by individual project or by category." Its initial focus was on space technology, ballistic missile defence, and solid propellants, all of them things that politicians were concerned about because of Russia's recent success in the space race. (Much of that stuff got moved over to NASA when that was founded shortly afterwards.)

Is there anything that specifically suggests that ARPA-H will be more politician-driven than DARPA?

While Darpa had an initial focus that was not part of the purpose for which it's founded. 

Putting ARPA-H under the jurisdiction of Lander's Office of Science and Technology Policy would make sense if you want it to be able to operate relatively independent. 

They put into the NIH bureaucracy likely because the NIH fought for it not being independent from them. 

Science writes:

Advocates who have been pushing for the new agency welcomed the announcement, but some were dismayed that ARPA-H will not be a stand-alone agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. “If it’s just another fund within the NIH, we’re not optimistic that it’s going to succeed,” says Liz Feld, president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation, a pancreatic cancer research advocacy group.

I didn't read the Science article beforehand, but it's the kind of thing I expected given reading the initial annoucement. 

I'm not sure to what extent there's such a thing as the purpose for which DARPA was founded, but it seems to me you could equally say that cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's aren't the purpose for which ARPA-H is being founded (assuming it actually happens); they're merely current expectations for some of the first things it will work on. So I'm not sure what distinction you're drawing htere.

Perhaps if I were more familiar with the structure of the relevant US agencies it would be clearer to me, but as it is I don't see how you get from "It will be part of the NIH rather than part of the OSTP" to "it will be more politician-driven than DARPA".

The article in Science quotes some people who think ARPA-H will probably do well and some who don't. This isn't terribly surprising; I bet that if the administration had issued a similar announcement but had said that ARPA-H would be part of the OSTP, they'd instead have quoted some people saying "It makes no sense for ARPA-H not to be part of Health and Human Services; I'm worried that it will end up wasting money on projects that don't really have anything to do with health" or something of the sort. (I remark that the alternative mentioned in the Science article isn't "part of the OSTP" but "a standalone part of DHHS".)

This is looking less and less like a real question and more like you just wanted to complain that the proposed ARPA-H isn't what you'd like it to be.

(For the avoidance of doubt, the above is not a coded way of saying that what you'd like it to be wouldn't be an improvement. I don't know enough about these things to have a strong opinion on that.)

That seemed like the objection is more, it's going to be a slave to the existing orthodoxy as far as what's important/promising, rather than the politians, and the former is even worse if you're expecting novel thought or research directions.  Not sure to what extent that's actually true but reporting structure does matter; especially the topmost layer that still has strong technical opinions.

(I remark that the alternative mentioned in the Science article isn't "part of the OSTP" but "a standalone part of DHHS".)

Part of OSTP would be the good but it requires a political fight against the whole HHS. The people intereviewed chose the fight against the NIH because that's the easier fight to win but they still lost.

I'm not sure to what extent there's such a thing as the purpose for which DARPA was founded, but it seems to me you could equally say that cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's aren't the purpose for which ARPA-H is being founded (assuming it actually happens)

I think the present scenario is that Biden's son died to brain cancer and Biden said on the campaign trial: “I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America,” he said. “We’re gonna cure cancer.”

Given that the rest of the NIH funding increase is relatively small this does look like his strategy for curing cancer.

This is not the first time Biden tries to cure cancer. Biden personally wants cancer solved and is likely to push in that direction. At the same time between head of ARPA-H, head of NIH, head of HHS and the president that's a lot of maze levels and that's only the top of of the organization and you can expect at least two additional maze level till it goes to the individual who heads the team that gets a grant and an additional at least one additional maze level for the people who work on the grant. 

The article in Science quotes some people who think ARPA-H will probably do well and some who don't.

Of course it does. Why wouldn't it? Why would it tell us anything that Science tries to present both sides? 

One the one hand you have biomedical scientists speaking about problems with ARPA-H and on the other hand you have an organization headed by a chair with a BA in English who describes herself as a thought leader with is a general tell for someone who engages in bullshit and a CEO who describes her background as "political science, sociology, and the humanities". 

It doesn't tell us anything that Science tries to present both sides. In particular, it doesn't tell us anything that Science found someone unhappy at ARPA-H being part of the NIH. That was my point.

I'm not sure what your last paragraph is about. On the face of it it seems to be something to do with the Science article, but it doesn't seem like it lines up with that. The people quoted there are, in order,

  • Liz Feld (BA in Government, journalist and politician): the one you quoted, very negative about ARPA-H as part of NIH
  • Michael Stebbins (genetics PhD, career in science, science journalism and science policy): "It has tremendous potential at NIH" but various caveats
  • David Walt (professor at Harvard): seems positive (though I think he's comparing it to the status quo rather than to putting ARPA-H somewhere else)
  • ResearchAmerica (sciencey PR organization): seems opposed to anything ARPA-H shaped at all because it will take money away from ordinary NIH projects

The last of these seems to be the one you're talking about -- its CEO does indeed describe her background that way. But they're strongly opposed to putting ARPA-H inside the NIH.

I did decide to look into who's behind ResearchAmerica but I think it's fair to notice that Liz Feld also doesn't have a science background. 

Michael Stebbins (genetics PhD, career in science, science journalism and science policy): "It has tremendous potential at NIH" but various caveats

I don't think that's a judgement about the merits of it being at NIH. It's accepting that the decision happened and wanting to influence the particulars. The battlelines being whether or not it's part of the common fund and a desire to for "program directors have to have tremendous flexibility" and "ARPA-H director has to have the authority to make decisions". To the extend that those are the goals being outside of the NIH would help with them. 

The thing that matters isn't whether ARPA-H is within NIH but whether it has the authority to make independent decisions. 

"Pretends" near the start of the first paragraph seems a more hostile word than you may actually intend. (I think I recall that you're not a native anglophone; "pretend" in English almost always implies specifically that the one pretending knows that what they're pretending is not so. It can also simply mean "claim" but that meaning is old-fashioned and very much not what anyone reading something in present-day English will think it means.)

I have no idea whether this ARPA-H thing will actually do anything interesting, but unless you think that the administration doesn't really want it to work like DARPA or to be more open to innovation, you should probably use a word other than "pretends". Even if you do think that, you might prefer to use a different word, in the interests of not being needlessly distracting to those who feel positively about the current US administration; politics is the mindkiller, etc.

I use the word because I think that it's more likely then not that ARPA-H won't be like DARPA.

I don't think that's sufficient justification. (Which is not to say that you don't have sufficient justification.) If I sincerely say "I am going to climb Mount Everest" and you think I don't have the skills and resources required to do so, it would not be reasonable for you to say "Gareth pretends that he wants to climb Mount Everest" unless you think I am outright lying about my intentions, rather than just unrealistic.

If the Biden administration wants something that will be able to engage in grand and innovative projects in the realm of health but has wrong ideas about how to get that (e.g., if they aren't giving ARPA-H enough autonomy, or aren't giving it enough money, or are encouraging the people running it to focus on areas where there aren't good opportunities for such projects), it is not accurate in present-day English to say that they "pretend to want" a DARPA-like organization.

On the other hand, if you actually think that they don't actually want something DARPA-like (maybe you reckon they want something that will let them funnel large sums of money to institutions that make large political donations, or something) then "pretend to want" accurately represents your opinions.

Regardless of whether it accurately represents your opinions, I predict that as long as the text says "pretends to want" a substantial fraction of readers will be distracted from what I take to be the actual question (what is this organization likely to achieve?) by politically-charged emotions, whether positive ("ha, nice to see someone seeing the Biden administration for the bullshitters they are") or negative ("why is this guy posting a political attack piece on LW under the guise of a question?"). Assuming that your actual goal is to get good answers to that question rather than to make political attacks, less-aggressive language might serve that goal better.

If the Biden administration wants something that will be able to engage in grand and innovative projects in the realm of health but has wrong ideas about how to get that

That sort of depends who you count as the Biden administration. Biden himself wants grand and innovative projects in the realm of health. On the other hand you have the NIH and surrouding players wanting more NIH funding and enough political power to get Biden to chose the structure he chose. When I say "pretends" I'm counting the people with the power to set the structure inside the Biden administration.

by politically-charged emotions, whether positive ("ha, nice to see someone seeing the Biden administration for the bullshitters they are") or negative ("why is this guy posting a political attack piece on LW under the guise of a question?"). 

There are two levels here. One level is caring about US party politics and the other is caring about the infrastructure of intellectual progress and the disfunction of what happens inside the HHS. I find the second much more important. Zvi writes nearly every week strongly worded content that attacks what happens inside the HHS. Being opinionated about the HHS is part of normal LW discourse. 

In this particular instance Biden plays more of a role then for the usual HHS issues but just because Biden touches the issue more, I don't think that's a reason to use less opinionated wording. 

Anyone getting mind-killed by the party politics is not going to be able to think well about the issue of what happens inside the HHS no matter how I word the question.