by Jason Crawford · February 28, 2021 · 4 min read
When I wrote my post on technological stagnation, the top question I got asked was: So, how do we fix it?
I don’t have the definitive answer, but here’s a starting point. I generally think about the causes of progress on three levels:
Funding. How do research, development, and distribution get funded? This encompasses both for-profit investing and non-profit funding of R&D.
Government. How does the law enable progress, or hamper it? Progress depends on good legal institutions; equally, it can be stifled by bad ones.
Culture. What is the basic philosophical attitude of society towards progress, and the people who pursue it? Is progress seen as possible and desirable?
Correspondingly, my top three hypotheses for technological stagnation are:
The centralization of research funding into a small number of inherently conservative agencies
The growing burden of regulation and bureaucracy
A culture that is increasingly skeptical of or actively hostile to progress
(These are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Incidentally, this is pretty much the same set of factors identified by J. Storrs Hall in Where Is My Flying Car?, which is part of why the book resonated with me so much.)
Inverting these (and changing the order), here are three broad approaches to accelerate progress:
In particular, create a culture that recognizes progress and appreciates it. Some ways to do this:
Tell the story of progress for a popular audience. Enlightenment Now and Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future are two books that do this, and of course it is a lot of what I try to do in these essays.
Publish the facts and data about progress. Our World in Data is the prime source for this today.
Teach the history of progress in schools. I’ve made a start at this with the course Progress Studies for Young Scholars, created in partnership with the Academy of Thought & Industry.
Report on progress fairly and honestly, without muckraking. The Atlantic and WIRED are a few publications that generally do this well; see in particular the work of Derek Thompson.
Write science fiction that envisions amazing inventions and the world they would create. For instance, many inventors and entrepreneurs have been inspired by the “primer” from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age (a sort of educational e-book or tablet based on advanced AI). And countless scientists and engineers have been inspired by the world of Star Trek, with its communicators, replicators, and teleporters.
Produce movies that tell stories of progress. Anton Howes has begun collecting a list of these; I think much more could be done. For instance, I’d love to see modern, popular biopics of Norman Borlaug, Louis Pasteur, or the Wright Brothers.
Bring back the World’s Fair. Anton also wrote about this recently, envisioning something that is like “all of today’s specific industry fairs, combined”: drone deliveries, driverless cars, VR/AR, 3D printed organ tissue and metals, food stalls with lab-grown meat, cloned animals brought back from extinction, exoskeletons and jetpacks to play with. Put forth a positive vision of the future we could create. Cameron Wiese is now working on this.
Celebrate progress. Maybe parades and fireworks are outdated now, but where, for instance, is the acclaim given to the BioNTech founders? Why aren’t they cultural heroes on the level of Jonas Salk?
In particular, provide more decentralized, distributed, heterogenous sources for research funding. Some interesting proposals and experiments along these lines:
Adam Marblestone and Samuel Rodrigues have proposed an idea called “Focused Research Organizations” (FROs), under the auspices of the Day One Project. FROs combine some of the aspects of DARPA, startups, and national labs, while aiming to fill a gap that isn’t well-addressed by any of these.
Donald Braben wrote a book, Scientific Freedom, about what went wrong with science funding, and his experiences with a different model. For over a decade, Braben ran a program called Venture Research at British Petroleum that gave grants for scientists to pursue ambitious, transformative research agendas, and gave them complete freedom to direct their work according to their own judgment. There was no committee-based peer review: grants were made on the potential of the idea and the persuasiveness of the researcher, without requiring proof up front that an idea would succeed, and without being biased in favor of older or more established researchers. Venture Research was relatively cheap to fund, with an annual budget of only a few million dollars a year, yet Braben lists a number of successes in disparate areas, from the study of macroscopic quantum objects to the foundations of “green chemistry”.
Ben Reinhardt is working out how to replicate the success of DARPA in a private organization. Here’s his insightful essay on what makes DARPA work.
Some examples of the problem:
Tyler Cowen has argued that “our regulatory state is failing us” when it comes to covid response (see also his interview in The Atlantic). Alex Tabarrok says that FDA delays have created an “invisible graveyard”, which covid has now made painfully visible. And Michael Mina at the Harvard School of Public Health has blamed the FDA for not authorizing at-home covid testing kits.
Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond have argued against the ban on overland supersonic flight.
Eli has also argued that environmental review for construction projects is needlessly burdensome, and doesn’t even protect the environment.
A Vox article argues that an unstable and unpredictable regulatory environment is party responsible for needlessly high costs of nuclear power in the US (especially stark when contrasted with more efficient construction in France and South Korea).
I don’t know how to drive solutions to these problems, but folks at places like the Mercatus Center and the Center for Growth and Opportunity are working on it. (And maybe part of the solution is to create “special economic zones” as charter cities.)
To condense these ideas even further into a pithy formulation, you could call them the three F’s: Progress needs founders, funders, and freedom. By “founders”, I include entrepreneurs who found startups or nonprofits, scientists who found new fields or subfields, and inventors who found new technologies.
These are ways to address stagnation and accelerate progress at a broad level, society-wide. But let me close with a note to anyone in science, engineering or business who has a vision for a specific way to make progress in a particular domain—whether anti-aging, space, energy, or anything else. My message is: Just go for it. Don’t let the funding environment, the regulatory environment, or the culture stop you. Work around barriers or break through them, whatever it takes. The future is counting on you.
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