Patrick Collison on Progress Studies →September 29, 2022 • #
Ezra Klein recently hosted Stripe founder Patrick Collison on his podcast for a deep dive into his thinking on progress studies.
Tracking down the origins of what generates progress, and what compels things like substantial breakthroughs in scientific research is a hard problem. Clearly there’s no monocausal explanation. I like Patrick’s idea here that specific attributes of research culture might be key contributors:
If we kind of accept that, and we try to ask ourselves, well, specifically, what are the mechanisms? You know, what’s actually going on? It’s hard for me to say. It seems like the transmission of research culture by individual researchers matters a great deal.
And you see these kinds of pockets of the cultural transmission repeatedly crop up, where Gerty and Carl Cori — you probably haven’t heard of — they ran a little biology lab in Missouri, and no fewer than six of their trainees, of students they trained, went on themselves again to win Nobel Prizes.
And if we tell ourselves a standard kind of mechanistic story as to, well, it’s the funding level, it’s how much are we investing in science, or it’s something about whether there’s an institution in the courser sense, that can possibly be amenable to it, it’s very hard to explain these eddies where you see these pockets of excellence really produce these outsized returns. So I think it’s a complicated question.
I think all of aggregate culture, funding, institutional characteristics, and so on all contribute to it. But if I had to isolate a single variable, it seems to me that the research culture set by specific people and the tacit knowledge transmitted through direct experience is probably the number-one thing.
Cultural factors are some of the hardest contributors to measure, which could be a reason why explaining where the enlightenment and human progress come from in the first place.
- Science, Innovation, and Longevity — Venture Stories interview with Jose Luis Ricon.