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Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science

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kelp forest off California coast


In late January, Elon Musk tweeted that he planned to give $100 million to promising carbon removal technologies, stirring the hopes of researchers and entrepreneurs.

A few weeks later, Arin Crumley, a filmmaker who went on to develop electric skateboards, announced that a team was forming on Clubhouse, the audio app popular in Silicon Valley, to compete for a share of the Musk-funded XPrize.

A group of artists, designers, and engineers assembled there and discussed a variety of possible natural and technical means of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. As the conversations continued and a core team coalesced, they formed a company, Pull To Refresh, and eventually settled on growing giant bladder kelp in the ocean.

So far, the venture’s main efforts include growing the seaweed in a tank and testing their control systems on a small fishing boat on a Northern California lake. But it’s already encouraging companies to “get in touch” if they’re interested in purchasing tons of sequestered CO2, as a way to balance out their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Crumley says that huge fleets of semi-autonomous vessels growing kelp could suck up around a trillion tons of carbon dioxide and store it away in the depths of the sea, effectively reversing climate change. “With a small amount of open ocean,” he says, “we can get back to preindustrial levels” of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

‘No one knows’

Numerous studies show the world may need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere by midcentury to prevent dangerous levels of warming or bring the planet back from them. In addition, more and more corporations are scouring the market for carbon credits that allow them to offset their emissions and claim progress toward the goal of carbon neutrality.

All of that has spurred a growing number of companies, investors, and research groups to explore carbon removal approaches that range from planting trees to grinding up minerals to building giant C02-sucking factories.

Kelp has become an especially active area of inquiry and investment because there’s already an industry that cultivates it on a large scale—and the theoretical carbon removal potential is significant. An expert panel assembled by the Energy Futures Initiative estimated that kelp has the capacity to pull down about 1 billion to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.

But scientists are still grappling with fundamental questions about this approach. How much kelp can we grow? What will it take to ensure that most of the seaweed sinks to the bottom of the ocean? And how much of the carbon will stay there long enough to really help the climate?

In addition, no one knows what the ecological impact of depositing billions of tons of dead biomass on sea floor would be.

“We just have zero experience with perturbing the bottom of the ocean with that amount of carbon,” says Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, who is analyzing the economics of various uses of kelp. “I don’t think anybody has a great idea what it will mean to actively intervene in the system at that scale.”

The scientific unknowns, however, haven’t prevented some ventures from rushing ahead, making bold promises and aiming to sell carbon credits. If the practice doesn’t sequester as much carbon as claimed it could slow or overstate progress on climate change, as the companies buying those credits carry on emitting on the false promise that the oceans are balancing out that pollution, ton for ton.

“For the field as a whole, I think, having this research done by universities in partnership with government scientists and national labs would go a long way toward establishing a basic level of trust before we’re commercializing some of this stuff,” says Holly Buck, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, who is studying the social implications of ocean-based carbon removal.

The lure of the ocean

Swaying columns of giant kelp line the rocky shores of California’s Monterey Bay, providing habitat and hunting grounds for rockfish, sea otters, and urchins. The brown macroalgae draws on sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in the cool coastal waters to grow up to two feet a day. The forests continually shed their blades and fronds, and the seaweed can be knocked loose entirely by waves and storms.

In the late 1980s, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium began a series of experiments to determine where all that seaweed ends up. They attached radio transmitters to large floating rafts of kelp and scanned the ocean depths with remote-operated submarines.

An underwater kelp forest off the coast of California.

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The scientists estimated that the forests released more than 130,000 tons of kelp each year. Most of the rafts of kelp washed up on shore within the bay in a matter of days. But in the underwater observations, they found bundles of seaweed lining the walls and floor of an adjacent underwater gully known as the Carmel Submarine Canyon, hundreds of meters below the surface.

Scientists have spotted similar remnants of kelp on the deep ocean floors in coastal pockets throughout the world. And it’s clear that some of that carbon in the biomass stays down for millennia, because kelp is a known source of oil deposits.

A 2016 paper published in Nature Geoscience estimated that seaweed may naturally sequester nearly 175 million tons of carbon around the world each year as it sinks into the deep sea or drifts into submarine canyons.

That translates to well below the levels of carbon dioxide that the world will likely need to remove annually by midcentury—let alone the amounts envisioned by Crumley and his team. Which is why Pull To Refresh and other companies are exploring ways to radically scale up the growth of kelp, on offshore vessels or elsewhere.

Reaching the deep seas

But how much of the carbon will remain trapped below the surface and for how long?

Certain species of seaweed, like giant bladder kelp, have tiny gas bladders on their blades, enabling the macroalgae to collect more of the sunlight necessary to drive photosynthesis. The bladders can also keep the remnants or rafts afloat for days or longer depending on the species, helping currents carry dislodged kelp to distant shores.

When the carbon in kelp decomposes on land, or turns into dissolved inorganic carbon dioxide in shallow seawater, it can return to the atmosphere, says David Koweek, science director at Ocean Visions, a research organization that partners with institutions like MIT, Stanford, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The carbon may also be released if marine creatures digest the kelp in the upper oceans.

But some kelp sinks into the deep ocean as well. Bladders degrade. Storms push the seaweed down so deep that they deflate. Certain species are naturally nonbuoyant. And some amount that breaks free below the surface stays there and may drift down into deeper waters through underwater canyons, like the one off the coast of Monterey.

Ocean circulation models suggest much of the carbon in biomass that reaches great depths of the oceans could remain there for very long times, because the overturning patterns that bring deep waters toward the surface operate so slowly. Below 2,100 meters, for instance, the median sequestration time would exceed 750 years across major parts of the North Pacific, according to a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters.

All of which suggests that deliberately sinking seaweed could store away carbon long enough to ease some of the pressures of climate change. But it will matter a lot where it’s done, and what efforts are taken to ensure that most of the biomatter reaches the deep ocean.

For-profit plans

Pull To Refresh’s plan is to develop semi-autonomous vessels equipped with floats, solar panels, cameras, and satellite antennas, enabling the crafts to adjust their steering and speed to arrive at designated points in the open ocean.

Each of these so-called Canaries will also tow a sort of underwater trellis made of steel wire, known as the Tadpole, tethering together vases in which giant bladder kelp can grow. The vessel will feed the seaweed through tubes from an onboard tank of micronutrients.

drone and boat at sunset
Pull To Refresh has tested its control systems on a fishing boat on a lake in Northern California.

COURTESY: PULL TO REFRESH

Eventually, Crumley says, the kelp will die, fall off, and naturally make its way down to the bottom of the ocean. By putting the vessels far from the coast, the company believes, it can address the risk that the dead seaweed will wash up on shore.

Pull To Refresh has already begun discussions with companies about purchasing “kelp tonnes” from the seaweed it’ll eventually grow.

“We need a business model that works now-ish or as soon as possible,” Crumley says. “The ones we’re talking to are forgiving; they understand that it’s in its infancy. So we will be up-front about anything we don’t know about. But we’ll keep deploying these Canaries until we’ve got enough tonnes to close out your order.”

Crumley said in an email that the company will have two years to get the carbon accounting for its process approved by a third-party accreditor, as part of any transition. He said the company is conducting internal environmental impact efforts, talking to at least one carbon removal registry and that it hopes to receive input from outside researchers working on these issues.

“We are never going to sell a tonne that isn’t third-party verified simply because we don’t want to be a part of anything that could even just sound shady,” he wrote.

‘Scale beyond any other’

Other ventures are taking added steps to ensure that the kelp sinks, and to coordinate with scientific experts in the field.

Running Tide, an aquaculture company based in Portland, Maine, is carrying out field tests in the North Atlantic to determine where and how various types of kelp grow best under a variety of conditions. The company is primarily focused on nonbuoyant species of macroalgae and has also been developing biodegradable floats.

The company isn’t testing sinking yet, but the basic concept is that the floats will break down as the seaweed grows in the ocean. After about six to nine months, the whole thing should readily sink to the bottom of the ocean and stay there.

Marty Odlin, chief executive of Running Tide, stresses that the company is working with scientists to ensure they’re evaluating the carbon removal potential of kelp in rigorous and appropriate ways.

Ocean Visions helped establish a scientific advisory team to guide the company’s field trials, made up of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and other institutions. The company is also coordinating with the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge on efforts to more precisely determine how much carbon the oceans can take up through these sorts of approaches.

Running Tide plans to carry out tests for at least two and a half years to develop a “robust data set” on the effects of these practices.

“At that point, the conclusion might be we need more data or this doesn’t work or it’s ready to go,” Odlin says.

The company has high hopes for what it might achieve, stating on its website: “Growing kelp and sinking it in the deep ocean is a carbon sequestration solution that can scale beyond any other.”

Running Tide has raised millions of dollars from Venrock, Lowercarbon Capital, and other investors. The tech companies Shopify and Stripe have both provided funds as well, purchasing future carbon dioxide removal at high prices ($250 a ton in Stripe’s case) to help fund research and development efforts.

Several other companies and nonprofits are also exploring ways to sequester carbon dioxide from seaweed. That includes the Climate Foundation, which is selling a $125, blockchain-secured “kelp coin” to support its broader research efforts to increase kelp production for food and other purposes.

The risks

Some carbon removal experts fear that market forces could propel kelp-sinking efforts forward, whatever the research finds about its effectiveness or risks. The companies or nonprofits doing it will have financial incentives to sell credits. Investors will want to earn their money back. Corporate demand for sources of carbon credits is skyrocketing. And offset registries, which earn money by providing a stamp of approval for carbon credit programs, have a clear stake in adding a new category to the carbon marketplace.

One voluntary offset registry, Verra, is already developing a protocol for carbon removal through seagrass cultivation and is “actively watching” the kelp space, according to Yale Environment 360.

We’ve already seen these pressures play out with other approaches to offset credits, says Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that assesses the scientific integrity of carbon removal efforts.

CarbonPlan and other research groups have highlighted excessive crediting and other problems with programs designed to incentivize, measure, and verify emissions avoided or carbon removal achieved through forest and soil management practices. Yet the carbon credit markets continue to grow as nations and corporations look for ways to offset their ongoing emissions, on paper if not in the atmosphere.

Sinking seaweed to the bottom of the ocean creates especially tricky challenges in verifying that the carbon removal is really happening. After all, it’s far easier to measure trees than it will be to track the flow of carbon dissolved in the deep ocean. That means any carbon accounting system for kelp will rely heavily on models that determine how much carbon should stay under the surface for how long in certain parts of the ocean, under certain circumstances. Getting the assumptions right will be critical to the integrity of any eventual offset program—and any corporate carbon math that relies on them.

Some researchers also worry about the ecological impact of seaweed sinking.

Wil Burns, a visiting professor focused on carbon removal at Northwestern University and a member of Running Tide’s advisory board, notes that growing enough kelp to achieve a billion tons of carbon removal could require millions of buoys in the oceans.

Those floating forests could block the migration paths of marine mammals. Creatures could also hitch aboard the buoys or the vessels delivering them, potentially introducing invasive species into different areas. And the kelp forests themselves could create “gigantic new sushi bars,” Burns says, perhaps tipping food chains in ways that are hard to predict.

The addition of that much biomatter and carbon into the deep ocean could alter the biochemistry of the waters, too, and that could have cascading effects on marine life.

“If you’re talking about an approach that could massively alter ocean ecosystems, do you want that in the hands of the private sector?” Burns says.

Running Tide’s Odlin stresses that he has no interest in working on carbon removal methods that don’t work or that harm the oceans. He says the reason he started looking into kelp sinking was that he witnessed firsthand how climate change was affecting marine ecosystems and fish populations.

“I’m trying to fix that problem,” he says. “If this activity doesn’t fix that problem, I’ll go work on something else that will.”

Scaling up

Scaling up kelp-based carbon removal from the hundreds of millions of tons estimated to occur naturally to the billions of tons needed will also face some obvious logistical challenges, says John Beardall, an emeritus professor at Monash University in Australia, who has studied the potential and challenges of seaweed cultivation.

For one, only certain parts of the world offer suitable habitat for most kelp. Seaweed largely grows in relatively shallow, cool, nutrient-rich waters along rocky coastlines.

Expanding kelp cultivation near shore will be constrained by existing uses like shipping, fishing, marine protected areas, and indigenous territories, Ocean Visions notes in a “state of technology” assessment. Moving it offshore, with rafts or buoys, will create engineering challenges and add costs.

Moreover, companies may have to overcome legal complications if their primary purpose will be sinking kelp on large, commercial scales. There are complex and evolving sets of rules under treaties like the London Convention and the London Protocol that prevent dumping in the open oceans and regulate “marine geoengineering activities” designed to counteract climate change. 

Commercial efforts to move ahead with sinking seaweed in certain areas could be subject to permitting requirements under a resolution of the London Convention, or run afoul of at least the spirit of the rule if they move ahead without environmental assessments, Burns says.

Climate change itself is already devastating kelp forests in certain parts of the world as well, Beardall noted in an email. Warming waters coupled with a population explosion of sea urchins that feed on seaweed have decimated the kelp forests along California’s coastline. The giant kelp forests along Tasmania have also shrunk by about 95% in recent years.

“This is not to say that we shouldn’t look to seaweed harvest and aquaculture as one approach to CO2 sequestration,” Beardall wrote. “But I simply want to make the point that is not going to be a major route.”

Other, better uses

Another question is simply whether sinking seaweed is the best use of it.

It’s a critical food and income source for farmers across significant parts of Asia, and one that’s already under growing strains as climate change accelerates. It’s used in pharmaceuticals, food additives, and animal feed. And it could be employed in other applications that tie up the carbon, like bioplastics or biochar that enriches soils.

“Sustainably farmed seaweed is a valuable product with a very wide range of uses … and a low environmental footprint,” said Dorte Krause-Jensen, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied kelp carbon sequestration, in an email. “In my opinion it would be a terrible waste to dump the biomass into the deep sea.”

UC Irvine’s Davis has been conducting a comparative economic analysis of various ways of putting kelp to use, including sinking it, converting it to potentially carbon-neutral biofuels, or using it as animal feed. The preliminary results show that even if every cost was at the lowest end of the ranges, seaweed sinking could run around $200 a ton, which is more than double the long-term, low-end cost estimates for carbon-sucking factories.

Davis says those costs would likely drive kelp cultivators toward uses with higher economic value. “I’m more and more convinced that the biggest climate benefits of farmed kelp won’t involve sinking it,” he says. 

‘Get it done’

Pull To Refresh’s Crumley says he and his team hope to begin testing a vessel in the ocean this year. If it works well, they plan to attach baby kelp to the Tadpole and “send it on its voyage,” he says.

He disputed the argument that companies should hold off on selling tons now on the promise of eventual carbon removal. He says that businesses need the resources to develop and scale up these technologies, and that government grants won’t get the field where it needs to be.

“We’ve just decided to get it done,” he says. “If, in the end, we’re wrong, we’ll take responsibility for any mistakes. But we think this is the right move.”

It’s not clear, however, how such a startup could take responsibility for mistakes if the activities harm marine ecosystems. And at least for now, there are no clear mechanisms that would hold companies accountable for overestimating carbon removal through kelp.



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Facebook wants machines to see the world through our eyes

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Facebook wants machines to see the world through our eyes


For the last two years, Facebook AI Research (FAIR) has worked with 13 universities around the world to assemble the largest ever data set of first-person video—specifically to train deep-learning image-recognition models. AIs trained on the data set will be better at controlling robots that interact with people, or interpreting images from smart glasses. “Machines will be able to help us in our daily lives only if they really understand the world through our eyes,” says Kristen Grauman at FAIR, who leads the project.

Such tech could support people who need assistance around the home, or guide people in tasks they are learning to complete. “The video in this data set is much closer to how humans observe the world,” says Michael Ryoo, a computer vision researcher at Google Brain and Stony Brook University in New York, who is not involved in Ego4D.

But the potential misuses are clear and worrying. The research is funded by Facebook, a social media giant that has recently been accused in the US Senate of putting profits over people’s well-being—as corroborated by MIT Technology Review’s own investigations.

The business model of Facebook, and other Big Tech companies, is to wring as much data as possible from people’s online behavior and sell it to advertisers. The AI outlined in the project could extend that reach to people’s everyday offline behavior, revealing what objects are around your home, what activities you enjoyed, who you spent time with, and even where your gaze lingered—an unprecedented degree of personal information.

“There’s work on privacy that needs to be done as you take this out of the world of exploratory research and into something that’s a product,” says Grauman. “That work could even be inspired by this project.”

FACEBOOK

The biggest previous data set of first-person video consists of 100 hours of footage of people in the kitchen. The Ego4D data set consists of 3,025 hours of video recorded by 855 people in 73 different locations across nine countries (US, UK, India, Japan, Italy, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Rwanda).

The participants had different ages and backgrounds; some were recruited for their visually interesting occupations, such as bakers, mechanics, carpenters, and landscapers.

Previous data sets typically consisted of semi-scripted video clips only a few seconds long. For Ego4D, participants wore head-mounted cameras for up to 10 hours at a time and captured first-person video of unscripted daily activities, including walking along a street, reading, doing laundry, shopping, playing with pets, playing board games, and interacting with other people. Some of the footage also includes audio, data about where the participants’ gaze was focused, and multiple perspectives on the same scene. It’s the first data set of its kind, says Ryoo.

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This NASA spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter’s mysterious asteroid swarms

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This NASA spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter’s mysterious asteroid swarms


Lucy will take black-and-white and color images, and use a diamond beam splitter to shine far-infrared light at the asteroids to take their temperature and make maps of their surface. It will also collect other measurements as it flies by. This data could help scientists understand how the planets may have formed.

Sarah Dodson-Robinson, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, says Lucy could offer a definitive time line for not only when the planets originally formed, but where.

“If you can nail down when the Trojan asteroids formed, then you have some information about when did Jupiter form, and can start asking questions like ‘Where did Jupiter go in the solar system?’” she says. “Because it wasn’t always where it is now. It’s moved around.”

And to determine the asteroids’ ages, the spacecraft will search for surface craters that may be no bigger than a football field. 

“[The Trojans] haven’t had nearly as much colliding and breaking as some of the other asteroids that are nearer to us,” says Dodson-Robinson. “We’re potentially getting a look at some of these asteroids like they were shortly after they formed.”

On its 4-billion-mile journey, Lucy will receive three gravity assists from Earth, which will involve using the planet’s gravitational force to change the spacecraft’s trajectory without depleting its resources. Coralie Adam, deputy navigation team chief for the Lucy mission, says each push will increase the spacecraft’s velocity from 200 miles per hour to over 11,000 mph.

“If not for this Earth gravity assist, it would take five times the amount of fuel—or three metric tons—to reach Lucy’s target, which would make the mission unfeasible,” said Adam during an engineering media briefing also held on October 14.

Lucy’s mission is slated to end in 2033, but some NASA officials already feel confident that the spacecraft will last far longer. “There will be a good amount of fuel left onboard,” said Adam. “After the final encounter with the binary asteroids, as long as the spacecraft is healthy, we plan to propose to NASA to do an extended mission and explore more Trojans.”

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Reimagining our pandemic problems with the mindset of an engineer

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Reimagining our pandemic problems with the mindset of an engineer


The last 20 months turned every dog into an amateur epidemiologist and statistician. Meanwhile, a group of bona fide epidemiologists and statisticians came to believe that pandemic problems might be more effectively solved by adopting the mindset of an engineer: that is, focusing on pragmatic problem-solving with an iterative, adaptive strategy to make things work.

In a recent essay, “Accounting for uncertainty during a pandemic,” the researchers reflect on their roles during a public health emergency and on how they could be better prepared for the next crisis. The answer, they write, may lie in reimagining epidemiology with more of an engineering perspective and less of a “pure science” perspective.

Epidemiological research informs public health policy and its inherently applied mandate for prevention and protection. But the right balance between pure research results and pragmatic solutions proved alarmingly elusive during the pandemic.

We have to make practical decisions, so how much does the uncertainty really matter?

Seth Guikema

“I always imagined that in this kind of emergency, epidemiologists would be useful people,” Jon Zelner, a coauthor of the essay, says. “But our role has been more complex and more poorly defined than I had expected at the outset of the pandemic.” An infectious disease modeler and social epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, Zelner witnessed an “insane proliferation” of research papers, “many with very little thought about what any of it really meant in terms of having a positive impact.”

“There were a number of missed opportunities,” Zelner says—caused by missing links between the ideas and tools epidemiologists proposed and the world they were meant to help.

Giving up on certainty

Coauthor Andrew Gelman, a statistician and political scientist at Columbia University, set out “the bigger picture” in the essay’s introduction. He likened the pandemic’s outbreak of amateur epidemiologists to the way war makes every citizen into an amateur geographer and tactician: “Instead of maps with colored pins, we have charts of exposure and death counts; people on the street argue about infection fatality rates and herd immunity the way they might have debated wartime strategies and alliances in the past.”

And along with all the data and public discourse—Are masks still necessary? How long will vaccine protection last?—came the barrage of uncertainty.

In trying to understand what just happened and what went wrong, the researchers (who also included Ruth Etzioni at the University of Washington and Julien Riou at the University of Bern) conducted something of a reenactment. They examined the tools used to tackle challenges such as estimating the rate of transmission from person to person and the number of cases circulating in a population at any given time. They assessed everything from data collection (the quality of data and its interpretation were arguably the biggest challenges of the pandemic) to model design to statistical analysis, as well as communication, decision-making, and trust. “Uncertainty is present at each step,” they wrote.

And yet, Gelman says, the analysis still “doesn’t quite express enough of the confusion I went through during those early months.”

One tactic against all the uncertainty is statistics. Gelman thinks of statistics as “mathematical engineering”—methods and tools that are as much about measurement as discovery. The statistical sciences attempt to illuminate what’s going on in the world, with a spotlight on variation and uncertainty. When new evidence arrives, it should generate an iterative process that gradually refines previous knowledge and hones certainty.

Good science is humble and capable of refining itself in the face of uncertainty.

Marc Lipsitch

Susan Holmes, a statistician at Stanford who was not involved in this research, also sees parallels with the engineering mindset. “An engineer is always updating their picture,” she says—revising as new data and tools become available. In tackling a problem, an engineer offers a first-order approximation (blurry), then a second-order approximation (more focused), and so on.

Gelman, however, has previously warned that statistical science can be deployed as a machine for “laundering uncertainty”—deliberately or not, crappy (uncertain) data are rolled together and made to seem convincing (certain). Statistics wielded against uncertainties “are all too often sold as a sort of alchemy that will transform these uncertainties into certainty.”

We witnessed this during the pandemic. Drowning in upheaval and unknowns, epidemiologists and statisticians—amateur and expert alike—grasped for something solid as they tried to stay afloat. But as Gelman points out, wanting certainty during a pandemic is inappropriate and unrealistic. “Premature certainty has been part of the challenge of decisions in the pandemic,” he says. “This jumping around between uncertainty and certainty has caused a lot of problems.”

Letting go of the desire for certainty can be liberating, he says. And this, in part, is where the engineering perspective comes in.

A tinkering mindset

For Seth Guikema, co-director of the Center for Risk Analysis and Informed Decision Engineering at the University of Michigan (and a collaborator of Zelner’s on other projects), a key aspect of the engineering approach is diving into the uncertainty, analyzing the mess, and then taking a step back, with the perspective “We have to make practical decisions, so how much does the uncertainty really matter?” Because if there’s a lot of uncertainty—and if the uncertainty changes what the optimal decisions are, or even what the good decisions are—then that’s important to know, says Guikema. “But if it doesn’t really affect what my best decisions are, then it’s less critical.”

For instance, increasing SARS-CoV-2 vaccination coverage across the population is one scenario in which even if there is some uncertainty regarding exactly how many cases or deaths vaccination will prevent, the fact that it is highly likely to decrease both, with few adverse effects, is motivation enough to decide that a large-scale vaccination program is a good idea.

An engineer is always updating their picture.

Susan Holmes

Engineers, Holmes points out, are also very good at breaking problems down into critical pieces, applying carefully selected tools, and optimizing for solutions under constraints. With a team of engineers building a bridge, there is a specialist in cement and a specialist in steel, a wind engineer and a structural engineer. “All the different specialties work together,” she says.

For Zelner, the notion of epidemiology as an engineering discipline is something he  picked up from his father, a mechanical engineer who started his own company designing health-care facilities. Drawing on a childhood full of building and fixing things, his engineering mindset involves tinkering—refining a transmission model, for instance, in response to a moving target.

“Often these problems require iterative solutions, where you’re making changes in response to what does or doesn’t work,” he says. “You continue to update what you’re doing as more data comes in and you see the successes and failures of your approach. To me, that’s very different—and better suited to the complex, non-stationary problems that define public health—than the kind of static one-and-done image a lot of people have of academic science, where you have a big idea, test it, and your result is preserved in amber for all time.” 

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