April 29, 2021 · 5 min read
If technological progress has slowed down, what is causing it? Here is a hypothesis.
Broadly speaking, there are three domains of activity important to technological progress: science, invention, and business. Science discovers new knowledge; invention creates useful machines, chemicals, processes, or other products; and business produces and distributes these products in a scalable, self-sustaining way. (Occasionally inventions are distributed by government: water sanitation is an example. But this oversimplified model will serve for our purposes.)
These domains do not form a simple linear pipeline, but they are distinct areas that attract different types of people, pose different challenges, and are judged by different standards. As such they create distinct communities and subcultures.
My hypothesis is that while science and business have functioning career paths, invention today does not.
Consider science. Suppose a high school or university student has a glimmer of desire to become a scientist. They will find that their road has already been paved. “Scientist” is a career. There’s an established path into the career: get a BS and then a PhD in a scientific field. There are research labs that hire scientists, organize them into teams, and give them space and equipment. There is funding for all of this, from government and philanthropy. There is an established deliverable: talks and papers, presented at conferences and published in journals. There are awards and honors that confer prestige within the discipline; some of these, such as the Nobel, are even well-known and respected among the general public.
All of this combines to create a career path for the scientist: anyone with even a modest level of commitment and effort can start down the path, and those who are exceptionally talented and ambitious can reach for inspiring goals. Importantly, there is a feedback loop in which progress down the career path opens opportunities. The more the scientist produces legible accomplishments, the more they are able to get grants, secure coveted positions, and attract talent to work with them. Money, prestige, and the opportunity to do meaningful work all (roughly) go together.
Entrepreneurship has different structures, but the career path is there nonetheless. “Startup founder” is not a job you get hired for; it is a job the founder must create for themselves. They must raise their own funding, create their own organization, and hire their own team. In this sense, the founder is much less well-supported than the scientist. But there are established sources of funding for startups, in venture capital. There is a known job title, CEO, that you can give to yourself and that is understood by others in the industry and in society. There is an objective way to measure success: company profits and market valuation.
The founder career path is to create a successful company. Once again, progress on this path opens up opportunities. The most successful founders have the resources and reputation to launch even more varied and ambitious projects (think Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk). However, a startup failure does not end a career. In Silicon Valley at least, failure is not a black mark, and a failed founder can do another startup, or get a job in engineering, design, sales, or management.
We can think of a career path as a social support structure around a value. In science, the value is new knowledge. In entrepreneurship, the value is profitable business. Having a support structure around a value means that if someone is motivated to pursue that value, they can be paid to do so; and if they succeed, they can expect both prestige and expanded career opportunities.
Now, what is the career path for an inventor?
“Inventor” is not a role one can be hired for. The aspiring inventor finds themselves straddling science and business. They could join a research lab, or become an engineer at a technology-based company. In either case, they will be misaligned with their environment. In research, what is valued is new knowledge. An invention that achieves a practical goal is not valued if it demonstrates no new scientific principle. In the corporate environment, what is valued is what drives the business. The engineer may find themselves optimizing and refining existing products, without any mandate to create fundamentally new ones. Neither environment values simply making fundamentally new technologies work. Alternately, an inventor could also be an entrepreneur, starting a company to commercialize the invention. But this requires of the inventor that they have the wherewithal of the startup founder to raise money, hire a team, etc. We ask this of founders because it’s in the nature of the job: someone who can’t do these things probably wouldn’t succeed at the rest of the founder’s task. But we don’t expect every scientist to found their own research lab, and we shouldn’t expect every inventor to be a founder either.
In the early 20th century there were options for inventors. Some joined the great corporate research labs of the day: General Electric, Westinghouse, Kodak, Dow, DuPont, and of course Bell Labs. Others stayed independent, patented their inventions, and sold or licensed the patents to businesses. This let them make a living by inventing, without being personally responsible for commercializing, scaling, and distributing their inventions (although it required seed funding: many inventors had second jobs, or got angel investment through personal connections).
For reasons I still don’t fully understand, both options have withered. Corporate research is largely not as ambitious and long-term as it used to be. The lone inventor, too, seems to be a thing of the past.
The bottom line is that if a young person wants to focus their career on invention—as distinct from scientific research, corporate engineering, or entrepreneurship—the support structure doesn’t exist. There isn’t a straightforward way to get started, there isn’t an institution of any kind that will hire you into this role, and there isn’t a community that values what you are focused on and will reward you with prestige and further opportunities based on your success. In short, there is no career path.
Note that funding alone does not create a career path. You could start an “invention lab” and hire people to make inventions. You could even pay, reward and promote them based on their success at this task. But it would be difficult to hire any ambitious academic, or anyone who wanted to climb the corporate ladder, because this role wouldn’t be advancing either career path. That isn’t to say that it would be impossible to hire great talent, but you would be facing certain headwinds.
I think this is why the NIH receives relatively conventional grant proposals even for their “transformative research awards”, and why Donald Braben says that he had to build a high degree of trust with researchers before they would even tell him their ambitious research goals (see Scientific Freedom, p. 135). The community that forms around a career path has its own culture, and that includes an oral tradition of career advice, passed down from senior to junior members of the tribe. What kinds of goals to pursue, what kinds of jobs to take and when, how to choose among competing opportunities—there is folklore to provide guidance on all these questions. A single grant program or call for proposals cannot counter the weight of a culture that communicates: “the reliable way to build a scientific career is by proposing reasonable, incremental research goals that are well within the consensus of the field.”
In part, I see this as both the challenge and the opportunity of efforts like PARPA or FROs. It’s a challenge because a career path must ultimately be supported by a whole community. But it’s an opportunity because efforts like this could be how we bootstrap one. Funding alone doesn’t create a career path, but it can attract a few talented and ambitious mavericks who value independence and scoff at prestige. Success could bring more funding, and inspire imitators. Enough imitators would create an ecosystem. Enough success would bring prestige to the field.
It won’t be easy, but I am excited by efforts like these. We need a career path for invention.
Thanks to Ben Reinhardt, Matt Leggett, and Phil Mohun for reading a draft of this.
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