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Levers for

A Living Database of Methods to Advance Science and Technology
By Kelvin Yu and Anson Yu


Starting in the early 2010s, a small group of economists and entrepreneurs raised the “stagnation hypothesis”: that Western scientific, technological, and economic progress has slowed significantly in recent decades.

Dr. Robert Gordon’s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth observes that 1870-1970 witnessed unprecedented improvements in people’s lives, driven by inventions like the electric grid, internal combustion engine and cars, all modern appliances, an Agricultural Revolution, global peace secured by nuclear weapons, the rapid expansion of modern medicine, and more. The greatest inventions of recent decades—computers and the Internet—have advanced our species in transformative ways, but have not uplifted the average quality of life at the same scale as past innovations. Even science itself is showing diminishing returns.

We created Levers for Progress to play a small part in reversing this trend. While the importance of scientists, entrepreneurs, and capital for innovation is obvious, we highlight the pivotal role that public policy and state capacity can have as well. LfP is an open collection of policies, tactics, and reforms modern institutions have used to advance their scientific and technological output. Some have worked better than others, but we hope LfP will inspire more discussion on experimenting with similar interventions, faster and more often.

We acknowledge the project’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Progress is real but it’s certainly not concentrated only in beakers, labs, and factories. Carving a holistic definition of civilizational progress is a grand challenge, so we leave that undertaking to braver souls.

We chose to focus on science and technology because, despite their measurable impact on quality of life, we do not fully appreciate or support their role in enabling lives of greater prosperity. Not in Washington, where underfunded government scientists are forced to work out of crumbling buildings. Not in education, where US students have underachieved in STEM for decades. Not even in Silicon Valley, which tends to dismiss academia and government, forgetting its US military roots and that federally-funded research underpins most technologies that power modern life.

We lack appreciation because we falsely believe that progress “just happens”. Some assume the universe has a natural will that trends toward some technological singularity. Others believe innovation marches along a singular path whereby discoveries occur when they are destined to. Most just assume it is nothing more than a stochastic procedure. Predeterminism, indeterminism, and apathy are all equally destructive; history is neither inevitable nor random. To believe either is to remove human agency to act, to change, to mold the future.

We used to understand that progress is a policy choice. In the 1940s, we charged the nation’s intellectual capacity and industrial might toward the Manhattan Project. In the 1960s, 400,000 people, 20,000 organizations, and 4.4% of the federal budget propelled the Apollo missions. We even dared to declare war on cancer in the 1970s. We inexplicably lost this ethos—and only began rekindling it in the last few years. The rest of this letter explains this history, but if you’d like to skip to the levers that are being used today to reanimate this spirit, you can head to the collection here.

Apollo Missions 16 and 17, the final times humans went to the moon.

The Rise and Fall of Technological Statecraft

Fears of stagnation are not novel in the modern West. John Keynes wrote in 1930, “We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterized the nineteenth century is over.”

Fifteen years and a world war later, Vannevar Bush—Roosevelt and Truman’s chief science advisor—cautioned against increasing specialization in science:

“There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers— conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.

Bush followed his comments by ushering in the Endless Frontier era — technological statecraft at a scale never before seen in history. The Greatest Generation recognized science and technology were paramount to US victory in WWII and would continue to be for its ascendancy, so they poured 1.86% of GDP into R&D by 1964 (3x higher than today’s federal R&&D:GDP ratio).

Most of today’s major scientific institutions were created during this golden age, including the NSF to be the central hub for research, NASA to explore the frontiers of space, and DARPA to garrison national security. They also expanded the National Institutes of Health to push the limits of biology and created programs that would later meld into the Department of Energy. The invention of the peer review system streamlined scientists' ability to wade through the “growing mountain of research” and match funds to the most qualified ones. The word “innovation” itself became synonymous with technology during this time.

Source: Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) with his analog computer.

Cultural narratives about technology took a darker turn in the 1960s and 70s. Left-wing humanists argued that science’s influence masked social inequalities, favoring certain privileged groups while oppressing others. The emerging New Right saw technology threatening traditional virtues and ways of living. Many of these critiques were justified, but the degree to which innovation was scapegoated was not. These overlapping revolts gradually dismantled technological ambition from politics, of science from the state.

The final nail in the coffin came with the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union, which had once “plunged America into spiritual depression” with Sputnik,

recast American R&D from a positive-sum priority for external security to a zero-sum competition for domestic appropriations. In response to the 1993 termination of the Superconducting Super Collider after Congress already invested $2 billion, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg lamented:

" Spending for the SSC had become a target for a new class of Congressmen elected in 1992…they didn’t feel that much was at stake.The Cold War was over, and discoveries at the SSC were not going to produce anything of immediate practical importance. The Clinton administration decided that it could only support one large technological project in Texas, and it chose the Space Station. The Space Station had the great advantage that it cost about ten times more than the SSC, so NASA could spread contracts for its development over many states. Perhaps if the SSC had cost more, it would not have been canceled."

Source: The SSC tunnel one year before it was canceled

Instead, the world’s flagship particle accelerator was built in Europe. Research fell out of fashion as a federal priority. Following Milton Friedman’s neoliberal doctrine, the government increasingly ceded

technological inventions (and their supply chains) to the private sector and global markets. As H.W. Bush's economic advisor famously quipped, "computer chips, potato chips, what’s the difference?" Industrial atrophy followed, with a nearly $60 billion trade surplus of advanced technology products (2020 dollars) in 1992 turning into a deficit of $191 billion by 2020.

The Roots of Revival

History is not over; there are good reasons to be optimistic. Past ideological headwinds have begun reversing in recent years, fueled by an unlikely intersection of movements.

Industrial policy, once a dirty phrase in American politics, has gained bipartisan traction in Washington. Efforts to build better roads, counter China, and deploy faster clean energy have resulted in $2 trillion of infrastructure, technology, and climate investments.

Free market fundamentalism should have died long ago, as democracies like Israel , South Korea , and Japan have proved for decades that industrial policy is an economic force-multiplier for capitalism if done right, but hey, better late than never.

Economic philosophies emerging across the political spectrum all share this ethos to build and innovate. On the left, abundance agendists and supply-side progressives like Ezra Klein urge liberals to “take innovation as seriously as affordability.” On the right, deregulation and innovation have become calling cards for reversing the spiraling costs of core social goods and recatalyzing economic growth. Appeals to restore “American Dynamism” and similar technolibertarian flavors also appear in Silicon Valley.

Allegations of stagnation have also become less heterodox. Stripe CEO Patrick Collison and economist Tyler Cowen’s 2019 petition for “a new science of progress” ignited the Progress Studies community, which seeks to investigate why scientific and technological progress happens and how to make it happen faster. Growing critiques of the scientific process formalized the growth of metascience, the field of research on how to improve the scientific process itself.

Many new institutions have emerged from these intellectual strands. On the government side, the NSF’s $880M Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships directorate, the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit and Office of Strategic Capital, and the UK’s £800M Advanced Research + Invention Agency aim to unshackle state-led innovation from traditional bureaucracies. Schmidt Futures, Arc Institute, Open Philanthropy, New Science, Arnold Ventures, and other funders are experimenting with new ways of doing science, incubating and backing projects like Convergent Research, Frontier Climate, Center for Open Science, UChicago’s Market Shaping Accelerator, Arcadia Science, and Speculative Technologies.

Deeptech venture funds have begun distributing grants for scientists to take their research out of the lab. A slew of publications including American Affairs, FreakTakes, Roots of Progress, Works in Progress, New Things Under The Sun, Construction Physics, and Faster Please! document critical lessons from the history of science and technology. Think tanks like the Institute for Progress, American Compass, Good Science Project and the Federal of American Scientists translate ideas into policies, helping create the $1.5B ARPA-H and the $880M TIP—the first NSF directorate to be created in almost 30 years.

These groups all place science and technology at the heart of national prosperity—and recognize our agency in determining the future.

What led to this nationwide emphasis on science and technology not seen in decades? This question deserves an in-depth exploration of its own, but some driving forces include:

  • Intensifying geopolitical competition makes leadership in dual-use technologies critical to safeguarding economic and national security interests
  • Rising costs of core social goods such as healthcare, higher education, and housing are becoming prohibitive for middle and lower classes
  • Decades of offshoring manufacturing have produced supply chain vulnerabilities, workforce dislocation, and loss of know-how
  • Global challenges demanding R&D at scale are becoming more prevalent. Covid highlighted the life-saving stakes of fast R&D. Climate change presents global risks for energy and food insecurity. Emerging biological weapons require better methods for detection and protection than we currently have available.

Source: Ribbon cutting at Fairchild, September 8, 1969

Of course, material innovation is not the best or only way to solve these problems. The easiest solution to reduce housing costs requires zero science or technology—we can simply update zoning laws to allow more housing projects. Similarly, healthcare costs could be lowered through policy maneuvers, perhaps by removing artificial limits on physician supply or redesigning the drug patent system. However, in the absence of those policies, material innovation—such as cheaper housing materials or automating drug discovery with AI—are potential avenues to reduce marginal costs.

Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world. Vannevar Bush

A Timely Collection

Most existing scholarship about innovation resides in business school case studies. Their goal is limited to comprehension, to explain why one organization succeeded where others failed. Our goal is to take the next step—to help institutions assimilate the systemic factors that lead to outperformance in innovation. As Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call out:

“Organizations as varied as Y Combinator, MIT’s Radiation Lab, and ARPA have astonishing track records in catalyzing progress far beyond their confines. These examples collectively indicate that one of our highest priorities should be figuring out interventions that increase the efficacy, productivity, and innovative capacity of human organizations.”

Through our work and reading, we’ve come across some deeply inspiring organizations, interventions, and principles. By aggregating these levers into an easily accessible directory, we hope institutions of all kinds—including federal and local governments, universities, funding agencies, philanthropies, and companies—can take inspiration and ingest them faster. Anyone who wishes to contribute a lever can do so on our Github or Typeform.

Let's get to work!

Where there is no vision, the people perish. — Proverbs 29:18.

Levers of Progress was co-created by Anson Yu and Kelvin Yu. We would like to especially thank our early contributors, who authored entries, provided invaluable feedback, and shared inspiring stories. They are: Dr. Brian Nosek, Santi Ruiz, Eli Dourado, Dr. Susannah Glickman, Ashwin Ramaswami, Sosa, Dr. Corin Wagen, Masao Dahlgren , Charles Yang, Dr. Willy Chertman, Erin Smith, Michelle Fang, Di Cooke, Jason Zhao, Anna Wang, Joel Burke, Alice Wu, Max Langenkamp, Ben Reinhardt, Henry Williams, Neil Hacker, Jasmine Sun, Jacky Zhao, AJ Kourabi, and a number of unnamed individuals, anonymized at their request.

© 2024 Levers for Progress