Similarly, while science generates much of our prosperity, scientists and researchers themselves do not sufficiently obsess over how it should be organized. In a recent paper, Pierre Azoulay and co-authors concluded that Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s long-term grants to high-potential scientists made those scientists 96 percent more likely to produce breakthrough work. If this finding is borne out, it suggests that present funding mechanisms are likely to be far from optimal, in part because they do not focus enough on research autonomy and risk taking.
Read: Small teams of scientists have fresher ideas
More broadly, demographics and institutional momentum have caused enormous but invisible changes in the way we support science. For example, the National Institutes of Health (the largest science-funding body in the U.S.) reports that, in 1980, it gave 12 times more funding to early-career scientists (under 40) than it did to later-career scientists (over 50). Today, that has flipped: Five times more money now goes to scientists of age 50 or older. Is this skew toward funding older scientists an improvement? If not, how should science funding be allocated? We might also wonder: Do prizes matter? Or fellowships, or sabbaticals? Should other countries organize their scientific bodies along the lines of those in the U.S. or pursue deliberate variation? Despite the importance of the issues, critical evaluation of how science is practiced and funded is in short supply, for perhaps unsurprising reasons. Doing so would be an important part of Progress Studies.
Progress Studies has antecedents, both within fields and institutions. The economics of innovation is a critical topic and should assume a much larger place within economics. The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University seeks to encourage optimistic thinking about the future through fiction and narrative: It observes, almost certainly correctly, that imagination and ambition themselves play a large role. Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson have called for an “applied history” movement, to better draw lessons from history and apply them to real-world problems, including through the advising of political leaders. Ideas and institutions like these could be more effective if part of an explicit, broader movement.
In a world with Progress Studies, academic departments and degree programs would not necessarily have to be reorganized. That’s probably going to be costly and time-consuming. Instead, a new focus on progress would be more comparable to a school of thought that would prompt a decentralized shift in priorities among academics, philanthropists, and funding agencies. Over time, we’d like to see communities, journals, and conferences devoted to these questions.
Such shifts have occurred before. A lot of excellent climate-science research—in environmental science, physics, chemistry, oceanography, mathematics and modeling, computer science, biology, ecology, and other fields—was being pursued before we recognized “climate science” as a discipline unto itself. Similarly, the designation of “Keynesian economics” helped economists focus on fiscal policy as a tool for recession fighting, just as the name “monetarism” created a focal interest in questions surrounding the money supply.