The social science side of science

Derek Thompson in a very good piece about Fast Grants:

A third feature of American science isthe experimentation paradox: The scientific revolution, which still inspires today’s research, extolled the virtues of experiments. But our scientific institutions are weirdly averse to them. The research establishment created after World War II concentrated scientific funding at the federal level. Institutions such as the NIH and NSF finance wonderful work, but they are neither nimble nor innovative, and the economist Cowen got the idea for Fast Grants by observing their sluggishness at the beginning of the pandemic. Many science reformers propose spicing things up with new lotteries that offer lavish rewards for major breakthroughs, or giving unlimited and unconditional funding to superstars in certain domains. “We need a better science of science,” the writer José Luis Ricón has argued. “The scientific method needs to examine the social practice of science as well, and this should involve funders doing more experiments to see what works.” In other words, we ought to let a thousand Fast Grants–style initiatives bloom, track their long-term productivity, and determine whether there are better ways to finance the sort of scientific breakthroughs that can change the course of history.

This is what I have heard in my reporting as well. The US has pioneered some extremely successful institutions for funding science and developing technology. That includes the NIH, as well as ARPA, the venture capital industry, etc.

But while those institutions are good at some things, they have flaws and are ill suited to certain tasks. Speed in the case of science funding, as Derek explains; for VC it’s a growing disinterest in deep technical risk, a mismatch with some capital-intensive forms of energy tech, and a model that demands 10X returns at minimum.

And yet we keep going back to the channels we have: more money pours into VC; Congress proposes more money for NIH. Neither of those is a bad idea, per se. But if you talk to folks who study the innovation process what they most want to see is experimentation in new institutions for developing science and tech. Fast Grants is a nice example but there’s a lot more experimenting still to do.

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