Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Golden Vapourware

About 10 years ago I did some analysis for a guy on the other side of the world who reckoned he'd cracked the carbon emissions problem. He wanted an estimate of the value of his technology and somehow I'd ended up in his path as an economist who could do such things.

Obviously I had no clue whether his thing worked or not because it was new technology, fresh out of the lab, and I'm just a humble economist. So I put a big caveat on the front of the report saying IF this works, its value is roughly this enormous number.

I never quite figured out whether he believed his own hype or not, but for a while after that I was fielding calls from potential investors, trying to hose down their expectations and drawing their attention to that great big IF statement, the significance of which they'd all somehow missed.

The experience made me think there's a pretty big market for vapourware that targets things we want to believe, like the idea that technology will save the planet in some way. The business model is to suck cash into R&D for a grand plan that sounds promising and might just work. Investors look forward to doing well by doing good and are willing to commit cold hard cash.

For all we know they might actually succeed. That's the thing about R&D: the outcomes are uncertain by definition. We're all lucky that brave souls dive into it because some of them do succeed and when they do the world can become a better place.

But. It's pretty annoying when those brave souls try to change the world before they've succeeded. And here I'm thinking particularly of that gosh darned golden rice. Somehow lots of people have got the idea that golden rice is ready to go. Such as this guy who reckons it's been ready since 2002, and of course this guy who famously decided not to drink the roundup after all.

Maybe they're really busy mounting emotional campaigns to blame anti-GMO folks for killing poor people, because they're obviously not reading the science updates from the actual scientists who are still working on developing the actual golden rice which doesn't actually work yet in the way they'd like to claim it works. Here's the link. It's an easy read but here's the key passage:
Golden Rice will only be made broadly available to farmers and consumers if it is: (a) successfully developed into rice varieties that retain the same yield, pest resistance, and grain quality—agronomic and eating traits acceptable to farmers and consumers—as current popular rice varieties; (b) deemed safe and approved by national regulators; and (c) shown to improve vitamin A status under community conditions.
Got that. It doesn't work yet.

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