Contributor Post Created with Sketch. If the Rate of Scientific Progress Is Slowing, America Must Step Up Its Game

 

The linkage between science and technological progress may seem obvious. When humanity didn’t have much of the latter, it also didn’t know much of the former. Economic historian Joel Mokyr describes the time before the Industrial Revolution as “a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology.”

And even during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, great advances were made in some sectors with little scientific understanding. As the IR rolled on, however, Mokyr describes an emergent division of labor where “British practical people discovered things that worked, and French theoreticians and German chemists uncovered the underlying science.” Today, there’s no doubt that continuing technological breakthroughs, invention, and innovation — and thus long-term economic growth — depend on scientific insights. Keep ‘em coming, ASAP. It would sure be worrisome if the rate of discovery slowed.

But maybe the pace of discovery has diminished, and that helps explain the long-run downshift in advanced economy productivity growth. In the new paper “Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?” by Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood, the two researchers conclude that “there is good and also wide-ranging evidence that the rate of scientific progress has indeed slowed down. In the disparate and partially independent areas of productivity growth, total factor productivity, GDP growth, patent measures, researcher productivity, crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law we have found support for this claim. … One implication here is we should not be especially optimistic about the productivity slowdown, as that notion is commonly understood, ending any time soon.”

Or to put it another way — as Nicholas Bloom, Chad Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb do in “Ideas aren’t running out, but they are getting more expensive to find” — it is as if humanity is drilling for oil, and we’re now “digging deeper into a trickier part of the rock.” It will require more investment and better tools such as AI to hit more gushers. From that analysis: “Unless we keep raising research inputs, economic growth will continue to slow in advanced nations such as the US.”

And along the same line, here is economist Jonathan Gruber, coauthor of Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream.

In my recent podcast with him: “The US used to be far and away the world leader in terms of government investment in basic science and R&D. We’re now barely in the top 10 in terms of share of GDP. And this is in a world where discoveries are getting hard. If anything, we should have ever-increasing investments in R&D, not ever-declining.”

Published in Economics, Technology
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There are 18 comments.

  1. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Personally I think we have more than enough innovation going on.

    The American public is now guinea pigs for many innovations that may or may not work as described. Already people in Arizona have gone on various rampages against the smart cars being tested in their residential neighborhoods. These mob rule activities occur only after such “smart cars” ran over people or damaged parked vehicles.

    Simply watching a couple of Big Pharma ads each night, I am horrified to find out that diabetics are now encouraged to have what are basically mini-radio transmitters and receivers implanted under or right on top of their skin.

    The upside is that a diabetic does not need to prick their finger once or several times a day. The device allows its user to swipe a cell phone over it, and the data about the blood sugar level is relayed to the cell phones screen.

    The downside is we have no data about whether this is a safe thing to do to our bodies’ overall physiology. And if there will be studies involving this technology any time soon, it is most likely only Big Pharma will be the entity doing the studies on the data.

    AI is currently one of the top fields of excitement, in the realms of science, business, and political discussion. I keep wondering if the people at the top now so excited about such things will wake up one day to find out most of the rest of us are no longer here. After having our bodies bombarded by continual heavy duty wi fi signals, cell phone tower signalling, the coming 5G, the absurd rates of consumer impacts such as seizure disorders, asthma, stomach problems like Crohn’s and IBS, rheumatoid arthritis and skin problems, cancer, paralysis and death from the new vaccine schedules on steroids, and with decent food being expensive due to the proliferation of GM crap passing as food, it will be a miracle if any of us are left for the coming AI world to affect.

     

    • #1
    • November 22, 2019, at 1:14 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. James Gawron Thatcher

    James Pethokoukis: “The US used to be far and away the world leader in terms of government investment in basic science and R&D. We’re now barely in the top 10 in terms of share of GDP. And this is in a world where discoveries are getting hard. If anything, we should have ever-increasing investments in R&D, not ever-declining.”

    JimP,

    As an analytical instrument/process control sales engineer I was at a minimum at the state of the art. When we got a “custom” job we pushed the state of the art. I don’t wish to be unpleasant but when a society wastes massive amounts of its resources fighting a problem that doesn’t exist (Global Warming) and promotes technologies that are completely ineffective (renewable energy) it surely will find itself falling behind. What did Lincoln say, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

    Time to rise with the occasion and disenthrall ourselves.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • November 22, 2019, at 1:43 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. I Walton Member

    Frankly I don’t like the whole take here. I’m not in the innovation business, nor science, and don’t know much about any of it, BUT, I don’t think it’s an accident that it has declined nor do I attribute innovation just to mid 20th century government spending. I’d guess that spending is part of the reason for the decline. They took us to the moon and built the atomic bomb, which were very expensive incredible undertakings that pulled some of the smartest non government folks together and gave them specific goals and they didn’t have to be economically viable in any sense. This whole process was taken over by the centralized big spending bureaucrats who had no big simple straight forward goal and lots of money. What drives them is the need to preserve their positions and budget.

    • #3
    • November 22, 2019, at 2:42 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  4. Seawriter Member

    Scientific progress is slowing due to religious opposition. The Church of Woke and the pagan Church of Gaia have taken over the academy. If research does not adhere to the precepts of these two religions it is suppressed and silenced.

    • #4
    • November 22, 2019, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  5. drlorentz Member

    Maybe we’re just getting dumber. That’s a more parsimonious explanation for the decline in innovation. That’s the thesis of At Our Wits’ End. The authors marshal some powerful arguments for their view, including the anti-Flynn Effect: declining IQ.

    • #5
    • November 22, 2019, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. David Foster Member

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    As an analytical instrument/process control sales engineer I was at a minimum at the state of the art. When we got a “custom” job we pushed the state of the art.

    A *lot* of real-life innovations occur at the point where a technology interacts with an actual customer (or prospective customer)….it is a lot less abstract and bloodless than the typical academic view of innovation would suggest.

    • #6
    • November 22, 2019, at 3:06 PM PST
    • 1 like
  7. I Walton Member

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    Maybe we’re just getting dumber. That’s a more parsimonious explanation for the decline in innovation. That’s the thesis of At Our Wits’ End. The authors marshal some powerful arguments for their view, including the anti-Flynn Effect: declining IQ.

    Which would be averages, no? So irrelevant but certainly might tell us why we do so many really dumb things politically.

    • #7
    • November 22, 2019, at 3:27 PM PST
    • Like
  8. Henry Castaigne Member

    I am quite skeptical that we are slowing down technologically. The improvements in the biomedical field and in genetics are insane. I suspect that will be the next big tech boom. 

    • #8
    • November 22, 2019, at 5:54 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    I Walton (View Comment):

    Frankly I don’t like the whole take here. I’m not in the innovation business, nor science, and don’t know much about any of it, BUT, I don’t think it’s an accident that it has declined nor do I attribute innovation just to mid 20th century government spending. I’d guess that spending is part of the reason for the decline. They took us to the moon and built the atomic bomb, which were very expensive incredible undertakings that pulled some of the smartest non government folks together and gave them specific goals and they didn’t have to be economically viable in any sense. This whole process was taken over by the centralized big spending bureaucrats who had no big simple straight forward goal and lots of money. What drives them is the need to preserve their positions and budget.

    I very much agree. Although corruption has always been present in governmental and corporate enterprises, it has never been so all encompassing as it is now.

    For instance, Big Pharma is always “innovating.” But often their “innovations” involve doing a study that shows that some generic medicine people have used for quite a while is now to be considered a risky and dangerous med. Then the folks at Big Pharma tweak in a very minor way some component of the old medicine and use their power over at the FDA to see that the old medicine is phased out. The immediate effect is that the new medicine, being patent protected for so many more years down the road, will be much more expensive. Some people may or may not be able to bear the expense.

    If all this tweaking of the cheap generics was not occurring, maybe we’d have a cure for cancer by now. But this inexpensive bit of subterfuge on generic meds provides the executives at the pharmaceutical industries with so much profit, they might not really have any incentive to do anything more.

    • #9
    • November 22, 2019, at 6:00 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Scientific American weighs in on one repercussion of 5G:

    5G is to be allowed frequencies that will interfere with accurate weather forecasts:

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-5g-wireless-deal-threatens-accurate-weather-forecasts/?amp

    Well it certainly is not like anyone really needs accurate weather forecasts, right? I mean, if we have to choose between Sally downloading a movie on her phone, or our military knowing the weather, which is really more important to our consumer economy?

    • #10
    • November 22, 2019, at 7:49 PM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Mark Camp Member

    A perfect example of Pethokouthisian thinking.

    • #11
    • November 22, 2019, at 10:04 PM PST
    • Like
  12. Randy Webster Member

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):
    . After having our bodies bombarded by continual heavy duty wi fi signals, cell phone tower signalling, the coming 5G,

    Doctor Grimes in Heinlein’s Waldo felt the same way, and wore a lead-lined suit to prevent damage.

    [Edited for clarity]

    • #12
    • November 23, 2019, at 3:09 AM PST
    • 1 like
  13. I Walton Member

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    I Walton (View Comment):

     

    I very much agree. Although corruption has always been present in governmental and corporate enterprises, it has never been so all encompassing as it is now.

    For instance, Big Pharma is always “innovating.” But often their “innovations” involve doing a study that shows that some generic medicine people have used for quite a while is now to be considered a risky and dangerous med. Then the folks at Big Pharma tweak in a very minor way some component of the old medicine and use their power over at the FDA to see that the old medicine is phased out. The immediate effect is that the new medicine, being patent protected for so many more years down the road, will be much more expensive. Some people may or may not be able to bear the expense.

    If all this tweaking of the cheap generics was not occurring, maybe we’d have a cure for cancer by now. But this inexpensive bit of subterfuge on generic meds provides the executives at the pharmaceutical industries with so much profit, they might not really have any incentive to do anything more.

    Government controlling just about all of it and they with huge input into govt. It’s rotten from the top down but now it’s so well developed we don’t even have to call it corruption, it’s all within the law. Does the FDA really protect us? Well perhaps folks that don’t pay attention or can’t read, sort of, every once in a while but we’d be better off without it, or if it was tiny and just followed research, funded it and published what we learn.

    • #13
    • November 23, 2019, at 3:58 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. Sisyphus Member

    In the ancient city states of Greece, the rulers would actively suppress any technology that would impact the career of a class of citizens in the name of social stability, an ironic outcome of a renowned politically innovative culture. Creative destruction was understood and firmly rejected. For two hundred years in the mid First Millennium BC the hoplite’s equipment saw very little innovation and a lot of uniformity, giving rise to a market that would very efficiently redistribute the armor of the fallen among the city states. Since the usual opponent was an identically equipped city state with identical tactical formations, weapons, and techniques. Their historical experience with innovation led them to embrace a stable parity of martial forms rather than seeking advantage through innovation. And then, of course, innovation shattered the status quo.

    Today, all sectors of human existence are saturated with innovation. The view, for example, that a five year old should receive untested, life damaging counter-pubescence treatments owing to a little gender confusion (mom wanted a girl, so…) is hailed as progress and anyone pointing out the sheer evil of the practice is denounced as an anti-progress bigot. Gender dysphoria in adults is now treated not by addressing the dysphoria, but by administering faux gender change procedures that maim the patient while doubling the patient’s risk of suicide. And anyone who would point out the obvious evil of these practices is tagged an irredeemable, hateful bigot. And so it goes.

    The human race could use a break from innovation, but the competition of cultures won’t allow it. Failure to run this race means falling behind and societies losing control of their own destiny. Innovate or be innovated, in effect. Western do-gooders scour the less progressed regions of the world tying food and medical aid to abhorrent modernist innovations.

    The modern age has been one long, uncontrolled experiment in experimentalism. The upside has been incredible advances in medicine, communication, transportation, agriculture, computing, brewing. The downside is a world where nuclear powers could end human life any minute and where a massive, unnecessary dependence on microchips will result in social collapse and massive casualties at the next coronal mass ejection like the one in 1859 that melted telegraph lines. All of our glitzy microchip-dependent vehicles will instantly become overweight horse carts.

    And the Facebook/Twitter/Google effect is a totalitarian enslavement of the mind, made all the more ominous with the advent of screen addiction.

    As for AI, I’m with Larry Niven’s cowardly Puppeteers, I am in no hurry to invent our successor species. But whoever does will be considered a success as the human world burns.

    Change for change’s sake is reckless folly and human misery.

    • #14
    • November 23, 2019, at 5:13 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Sisyphus Member

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Government controlling just about all of it and they with huge input into govt. It’s rotten from the top down but now it’s so well developed we don’t even have to call it corruption, it’s all within the law. Does the FDA really protect us? Well perhaps folks that don’t pay attention or can’t read, sort of, every once in a while but we’d be better off without it, or if it was tiny and just followed research, funded it and published what we learn.

    Corruption is whatever acts to undermine the legitimate aims of the system, legal or illegal. Thus, corrupt laws.

    • #15
    • November 23, 2019, at 5:18 AM PST
    • Like
  16. Old Bathos Member

    How do we quantify rates of innovation? Surely one big discovery/invention like internal combustion engines counts more than the origin of dozens of smaller product lines.

    And is there a measure of readiness for innovation? Maybe a measure that is the inverse of the political, legislative, social and economic power arrayed against disruptions of the status quo.

    Why should anybody ever rely on an economist to assess future technology? (Paul Krugman’s brilliant likening of the impact of the internet to that of the fax machine comes to mind.)

     

     

    • #16
    • November 23, 2019, at 6:32 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. drlorentz Member

    I Walton (View Comment):

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    Maybe we’re just getting dumber. That’s a more parsimonious explanation for the decline in innovation. That’s the thesis of At Our Wits’ End. The authors marshal some powerful arguments for their view, including the anti-Flynn Effect: declining IQ.

    Which would be averages, no? So irrelevant but certainly might tell us why we do so many really dumb things politically.

    Why would averages be irrelevant? As with most human traits, there is a distribution function for IQ. Because of the central limit theorem, it is the normal distribution function. When the average decreases there will be a downward shift at all levels: fewer geniuses and more idiots.

    Don’t take comfort from it’s only a lower average. If the average IQ declines, so does the IQ in all categories. 

    • #17
    • November 23, 2019, at 9:18 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Mark Camp Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    How do we quantify rates of innovation?

    Make up something and then apply some statistical analysis on it. Because it will be data-driven, and very mathematical, it will science-y.

    • #18
    • November 23, 2019, at 12:13 PM PST
    • 4 likes