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What we're going to be doing here
Science and technology policy is obsessed with the piecemeal. We have endless discussion, lobbying, and debate over the contours of the New Hot Thing: a “National AI Strategy,” a “National Biotech Strategy,” a “National Blockchain Strategy.”
Government agencies, think tanks, and commentators of every stripe invest their time, money, and efforts on influencing narrow slices of the overall technological and scientific landscape. We treat each technology as its own arena, with every technology spawning its own scene of specialists and pundits. When a more general “science policy” is articulated, it’s often just the ideas and proposals from these individual domains roughly stapled together, with very little attempt to articulate a broader whole.
This is vaguely disappointing. Science has for me always meant something more than the sum of its parts, and in a literal sense a genuine SCIENCE policy seems like it should speak to that whole.
This requires us to think how interventions impact the many tribes of science and technology as a common, interrelated, often crazily-architected ecosystem. It also requires that we challenge ourselves to think beyond the terms of existing institutions like the NSF and NIH. We need to dream bigger about how science might be influenced and shaped at the macroscale.
If you ask a room of (extremely nerdy) people about the most influential “big picture” documents thinking about scientific strategy in this more holistic vein, the immediate response is Vannevar Bush’s The Endless Frontier.
This is a good answer. The Endless Frontier is cool.
What makes Endless Frontier so cool? For one, Frontier comes at the question of science policy with the ambition of shaping science as a whole, not just improving outcomes in a specific domain of endeavor. The report identifies and then addresses macro-scientific issues that stretch across fields: what a wartime economy produces in scientific innovation, the aggregate supply of scientists, incentives that influence the balance between basic and applied research, and so on. This is cool.
Frontier is cool in how it thinks not just about these problems, but their solutions as well. The report starts with the big questions: What is the proper role of government with regards to science? What should it be trying to accomplish? How does the structure of science impose constraints on the role the government can and should play? It builds its recommendations from there. There’s an intellectual grounding here: a drive to ensure that the policy levers for shaping science are linked back to a cohesive theory of the governance of science. This is cool.
Macroscience aims to approach science policy in the same spirit. My ambition here is to build an intellectual foundation for the idea that the government has the responsibility to play an active, ongoing role in science, the same way that fiscal and monetary policy plays a role in the economy.
To do this, science policy will need to approach a granularity and theoretical crispness that resembles economic policy. Researchers in metascience and related fields have already started us down this path by reframing our understanding of science as a kind of market: a dynamic ecosystem of researchers, institutions, funding, and exploration that responds to incentives.
My feeling is that the next step is to expand these research insights into an applied theory of science governance. Science policy exists in an exciting pre-Keynesian, pre-Friedman state. We’re not just figuring out what the most efficient levers might be, but also working out the framework that guides when and how these levers should be deployed.
There’s a lot of work to be done here. After naming Endless Frontier, you’ll find that people run out of other recommendations in the macro-scientific genre very, very quickly. That’s wild when you consider the massive changes that have come to pass since Bush wrote the report in 1944.
This highlights the urgent, pragmatic reasons for doing all this. US scientific achievement and innovative capacity have always been a crucial cornerstone of its prosperity and global influence. But, our strategic thinking and institutional machinery for securing and growing this capacity has not always kept pace with deep changes happening in the economy of science and technology. We need more conversations thinking from first principles about what the place of government in science should be, and the tools it needs at its disposal to be effective.
Macroscience aims to be a place for that discussion.
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