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Some musings on the "we need a Manhattan Project" for COVID language, separate from whether the Manhattan Project is a good historical analogy to draw upon or not. 1/
What people want when they call for a "Manhattan Project" is an immense rapid, coordinated technical effort. They want science to get them answers and to get it fast. They want the answers to be usable in the short term — not fundamental discoveries, but immediate application. 2/
The actual Manhattan Project "worked" because of a few distinct factors. One is that the US was in a unique position to take advantage of refugee geniuses who had fled Europe. We had thus had the relevant brainpower in-house, so to speak (even if it was only recently so). 3/
Another was that they were run by someone (Groves) who was ruthless in his pursuit of the goal of the project. He got it assigned top priority for the entire US war effort, and made plenty of enemies — political and military — along the way. But he had only one real goal. 4/
He was not, we might suggest, interested in future political office. He was not interested in financial self-enrichment. His major personal aspiration was for continued influence and rank, which he saw as being something you got if you won. He was relatively unknown beforehand. 5
He also was able to operate almost totally autonomously, without oversight. There are definite risks in such a situation — and in some areas, like security, he could be really heavy-handed. But he also worked to keep pristine records — he knew he'd be scrutinized afterwards. 6/
I just outline this to highlight some of the issues that would be involved in applying this concept to the present day. Who is the equivalent Groves? By definition we probably wouldn't already know them. Could we imagine giving someone this much unchecked power? 7/
Separately — and I don't know the answer to this — is COVID-19 something that would respond to this approach? Is making a vaccine like making an atomic bomb? Would having a single "coordinator" for all of the research benefit, or hurt, the development? 8/
If all we want is to disperse funds more efficiently, why can't we just do that now? I assume that the CDC and other global agencies already have connections to make vaccines. I assume they are already pushing them as much as they can? Are they? 9/
So would a "Manhattan Project" effort actually be expected to get faster results than the status-quo? I admit to not knowing much about vaccine research. But I suspect not? By all means, fund the work and do it quickly. But would it really benefit from total coordination? 10/
Separately, I just can't see, in the present political environment, anything like bipartisan support for something that would be given this amount of discretion. We've got too much suspicion — and too many reasons to be suspicious. 11/
We've got a POTUS who actively tries to interfere with just about everything, who pushes his own (crackpot) ideas about the virus and its therapy, who cannot stand anyone else to get the limelight, who consistently puts grifters into positions of responsibility. 12/
Separate from the politics and pathos of it, I just don't see a top-down coordinated effort *succeeding* under these circumstances. There have been many nice studies of what kinds of organizational environments produce results in these kinds of programs. 13/
And they all basically conclude that exactly the kinds of circumstances that make up contracting in the present-day USA, and the specifics of the present political environment, lead to overspending, underperformance, and missteps. 14/
I think a non-Manhattan Project approach is probably more likely to get us what we want: a viable vaccine. We don't need a central "leader." We don't need central coordination to Groves-like abilities. Vaccines aren't nuclear bombs, for one things. 15/
One of the reasons they needed a Groves in the 1940s is because there was no comparable industry for producing nuclear weapons — they had to built it up from nothing. That's not the state of vaccine research in the USA. It's a thing. We just need to fund it. 16/
Whatever people want, it's not a Manhattan Project, not really. What they want is a vaccine, and quickly. I suspect that means taking more advantage of the institutions we already have, not creating radically new ones, even with big budgets. 17/fin
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