making progress on progress studies

a practical guide to learning how to make science go vroom

“Don't think about consequences, 'cause they're never gonna stop me, what?”

- Charli XCX, Vroom Vroom

progress studies 101

In the not-so-far future we have the potential to cure all diseases, mitigate our climate crisis, and make material scarcity a historical legend. The question of how we get there as soon as possible is important.  

Progress Studies-- the question of how we improve the rate by which we build our own Eden-- has become a charming pocket of formal research in the few years since the Atlantic piece was published. While “how do we make science go fast” has been an area of research since the OSRD-- the lack of consistent academic interest, permanent institutions, and consistent funding has made cutting through the bullshıt difficult. 

The following is a primer written mostly for our benefit on Progress Studies. The goal here is to form something of a taxonomy of active, credible research directions in the field with pointers to interesting work and people for further exploration. 

economic growth

For most of human history, per capita wealth just didn’t grow. At all. It’s hard to internalize all that this means. There was no particular reason to expect that your income would go up over your lifetime, unless you were tangibly extracting more from those around you (which, of course, you still might be in today’s world if you’re working as a McKinsey consultant). 

There was no reason to think that humanity should get noticeably better at anything during your lifetime, from treating new diseases or even trivial things like saving you time while shopping. It certainly would have been unreasonable to expect, much less desire, that your kids have a life better and wealthier than the one you had to live with growing up.

And then suddenly the quality, quantity, effectiveness, and variety of tools, goods, and eventually products and services that we made and sold to each other started going up and hasn’t stopped.

where does technology come from?

History of technology/science departments have existed within universities for a long time. Like most formal study of history-- these departments largely exist to tell interesting stories rather than build anything new. This isn’t to say the field is without merit (it has plenty to teach), but it is important to keep this framing in mind.

The Big Questions in the History of Technology” and “Does technology drive history? the dilemma of technological determinism” remain the best although dated overviews of the field. Additional depth of survey work exists in the literature for those brave enough to venture into the depths of JSTOR.

There also exists a great body of literature around scientific consensus making, and most notably, the structure and function of scientific revolutions. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is remarkable. “The Technological Society” and “The Question Concerning Technology” both are much better than their inclusion on every HisTech 101 syllabus would suggest, and mark natural next steps from Kuhn.

For here it helps to get specific on historical context. Both the development of the atomic bomb and Silicon Valley (which is scarier? unclear) have great introductions in  “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “The Big Score” respectively. The thousands of great books on semiconductor history, industrial labs, automaking, and a number of other niche industries are meaningful rabbit holes as well. N.B. a common failure path in progress studies is an over-fixation on the specific historic events that lead to a scientific development rather than the meta-process of progress, this rarely bears fruit.  

performance enhancing drugs for progress

Vannevar Bush’s “Science The Endless Frontier” remains the best early introduction into what would become modern progress science. Much of the writing that has come out of progress studies in the last few years have been weaker reiterations of Bush’s ideas, so you might as well read the original. “As We May Think”, also by Bush, is less topical but is an absolute banger

The field of economics has also produced a mass of interesting work on the subject of accelerating progress-- largely concerning itself with the preconditions and limiters of economic growth. There’s enough work here to take a few thousand PhD students to the grave before their prime, so we’ll just list some of our favorites. “Why Big Cities Promote Less Innovation Than They Once Did”, “The Geography of Innovation”, “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents”, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, “Population Growth and Technological Change”, and “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”. Much of the Tyler Cowen extended universe also deals with these subjects in a much less brutalizing way.  

Land use policy has a surprisingly large effect on all other types of growth. Henry George’s ideas on Land Value Taxation remain the most relevant. “How Asia Works” is a classic for its perspective on the relationship between land use and economic growth (as well as the fact it seems to be the only thing they read in PPE).

If politics are downstream of policy and policy is downstream of aesthetics, it's useful to crank back to the source and look at some pretty photos. Our World in Data was founded with an explicitly pro-growth manifesto.

In response, partially, to points that have come out of the Progress crowd in recent years, some on the right have called for resuscitating industrial planning as a field of governance, and some on the left have begun to make explicitly pro-growth arguments to achieve their social aims, including on the climate, and even AI

The recent progress studies movement has been festering long enough that it’s generated some internet art of debatable quality and relevance. There’s solarpunk art. Kurzgesagt makes animations that you can send to your family to convince them technological progress will solve our problems. Works in Progress is an online clearinghouse that publishes essays on current events with a Progress Studies angle, and Palladium to some extent does the same for what it calls “Governance Futurism” (can anyone define this?). The CEO of a payments company maintains a list of historical projects that were completed surprisingly quickly that has birthed a thousand twitter threads.

how do we pay for good science

When thinking about funding science-- it’s useful to split the field into two:

  1. Corporate R&D

  2. Grantmaking, whether from governments or private foundations

It turns out the former funds a reliably increasing share of all spending on “science” in the US (although of course the private sector has a tax incentive to file anything it can under research and development and hope they don’t get audited, thanks M*instreet!). 

Everything that even looks slightly like corporate R&D is inevitably compared to Bell Labs, so you might as well read Jon Gertner’s book on it. We maintain a more expansive list of books about what exactly happened in Holmdel as well that have all been signed off on by actual ex-Bell Labs employees.

Walter Issacson’s book on the history of computing, The Innovators, is also useful context with which to understand modern corporate R&D and its roots, at least in the bay area. The best introduction to the way that the vast majority of government-backed science funding works at the NIH and NSF is their own extensive documentation as well Jose’s writing (past, future, and present). 

Some cells within government and philanthropy have experimented with approaches that target funding riskier scientific goals or breakthroughs. Ben Reinhardt’s essays on what makes DARPA work are a good first stop, followed with a chaser of the Open Philanthropy Project’s essays on  Philanthropy’s Success Stories, the problems with conducting “Breakthrough Fundamental Science”, Case Studies in Early Field Growth, Neglected Goals in Scientific Research, and general philosophy of “Hits-Based Giving”. Waldrop’s book on JCR Lidlicker is also self recommending. 

As of late, folks in the progress sphere have been experimenting with novel grantmaking mechanisms. The most mature being Fast Grants which seem to have already had credible impact. FROs are another mechanism that is showing early merit. The Astera Foundation is also of considerable merit. Notably, most of these are funded with crypto fortunes and far away from the traditional worlds of philanthropy. Our bet is these models are still in the earliest days of their S-Curves and could shoulder 1000x the capital before saturating.

onto the next: There are inevitably great pieces of work we’ve missed here, and we welcome any further additions. We will keep this document updated as new resources emerge over the coming months. Please do reach out!

Will, Chris, and Andre

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I’m a founder, investor and all around Toronto man, building the future of healthcare. I’m cofounder and CEO of HelpWear, YC S17 alumni, and a Thiel fellow.
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