Progress studies
Why have standards of living improved and how can we speed up progress?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, history, law and sociology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Progress Studies is a fairly new field popularised by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison. It is focused on the question of how successful ‘people, organisations, institutions, policies and cultures’ have previously arisen and how to increase positive progress in the future.

Many advancements in science and technology have significantly improved human wellbeing over the past few centuries. It could be highly valuable to increase our understanding of the factors that led to periods of particularly high innovation throughout history, and to identify current bottlenecks to positive progress and interventions that could speed progress up. 

Current incentive structures in science often do not encourage the most productive research strategies, or take focus away from the questions that are most important from a welfare perspective, so finding ways to improve scientific incentives is one promising avenue.

 

Economic growth also appears to be a highly effective way of improving human wellbeing and reducing poverty. It could be useful to investigate the causes of economic growth and further explore its relationship with wellbeing. This 80000 Hours podcast interview with Tyler Cowen explores this in more detail.

Although Progress Studies tends to focus most on understanding scientific and technological progress and economic growth, one of the leading figures in the field, Jason Crawford, advocates here for the importance of taking a big-picture perspective that includes moral and social changes when exploring the causes and nature of progress. Because of this broad scope, while this profile focuses on scientific and technological progress and economic growth, our profiles on moral circle expansion, understanding the impact of social movements and improving institutional decision making are also relevant to progress studies.

Explore existing research

It might also be useful to check Winners of Emergent Ventures grant (progress studies tranche) to find other researchers working on this research direction.

See this list of books from The Roots of Progress.

  • The Institute for Progress is a think tank focused on policy research to speed up scientific, technological and industrial progress.
  • The Roots of Progress is a research organisation exploring the value and causes of progress.
  • The Science for Progress Initiative at JPAL is focused on researching the most effective methods of funding and supporting scientific research.
  • The Center for Open Science is an organisation working to increase the openness, integrity and reproducibility of research.
  • New Science is a non-profit researching what scientific infrastructure and norms most support progress.
  • The Entrepreneurs Network is a UK-based think tank focused on policy research to speed up scientific and technological progress and economic growth.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

  • One potentially promising avenue is studying how to organise institutions of science to increase their productivity. A new discipline named Science of Science or metascience sets out to do this in a quantitative, interdisciplinary manner. Some related ideas can also be found in this series of posts at Nintil. Some people also argue for the importance of structural diversification of scientific institutions (for example, see Samuel Arbesman’s list and José Luis Ricón’s list for examples of alternative models, as well as Michael Nielsen and Kanjun Qiu’s extensive introduction and list).
  • The problem of potential adverse side effects or even existential risks being caused by new technologies has received little to no attention so far. We need to better understand how (and to what extent) we can shape the direction of technological progress to avoid the development of harmful technologies. Research in this area could build on the literature on directed technical change, which includes both theoretical (Acemoglu 2002, Acemoglu et al. 2012, Popp et al. 2010) and empirical (Popp 2002, Hanlon 2015, Aghion et al. 2016) studies on the impact of various economic factors (such as prices of input) on the evolution of technology. Key books in this vein include those by Robert C. Allen and Carl Benedikt Frey.
  • Further research could develop ‘estimates for cost effectiveness on science policy work – what kind of resourcing is needed to achieve relevant changes? How does this compare to other policy work, or to other research improvement work? Study the track record of existing organizations that have attempted to influence science policy (e.g. patient advocacy organizations).’ (Improving science: Influencing the direction of research and the choice of research questions)
  • You could also explore the following questions: ‘What are the best existing methods for estimating the long-term benefit of past investments in scientific research, and what have they found? What new estimates should be conducted?’ (from 80000 Hours, adapted from Luke Muehlhauser writing for Open Philanthropy), Technical and Philosophical Questions That Might Affect our Grantmaking)
  • Inefficient practices and technologies often persist despite the availability of better alternatives. For example, Bloom et al. (2013) show that providing consulting on management practices to randomly chosen Indian textile firms increased their productivity by 17%. Further research could address why firms do not adopt more productive practices (although this area might be less neglected, see e.g., Comin and Mestieri 2014 for a review of literature on technology diffusion).

You could explore questions such as:

  • Why major examples of scientific and moral progress happened in different parts of the world – such as the Dutch Golden Age, or the origins of the British Industrial Revolution.
  • How historical events suggest we might be most able to influence trends in progress. For example, how have highly innovative research institutes been created in the past?
  • What history suggests about the likelihood of continued progress (with regard to changes that improve human wellbeing) and how the reversal of progress can be avoided.
  • What disciplinary norms from across different disciplines and traditions lead to the most — and most socially responsible — scientific progress? (from 80000 Hours, inspired by Richard Ngo, Technical AGI safety research outside AI).

See our profile on the most important historical trends for other relevant questions.

Open Philanthropy’s report ‘Science Policy and Infrastructure’ suggests ‘examining existing regulations – regulations on research, regulations regarding sharing of data, etc. – from the perspective of optimizing the ability to gain new knowledge and reap the benefits of innovation.’

Specifically, this might include research focused on:

  • ‘Improving the balance between patients’ privacy and scientists’ ability to access large amounts of data for research purposes.
  • Improving the FDA process with an emphasis on increasing scientists’ ability to experiment and innovate, especially if and when new tools for data sharing present new possibilities for demonstrating safety and efficacy of medical technologies.
  • Improving the balance between ethical considerations and scientists’ ability to run informative experiments without excessive overhead…
  • Regulating data sharing practices in clinical trials with an eye to enabling “reverse translation” research.
  • Working on optimal regulation of emerging technologies, in a framework that emphasizes the importance of innovation’s benefits as much as the importance of caution.’
  • One potentially promising avenue is studying how to organise institutions of science to increase their productivity. A new discipline named Science of Science or metascience sets out to do this in a quantitative, interdisciplinary manner. Some related ideas can also be found in this series of posts at Nintil. Some people also argue for the importance of structural diversification of scientific institutions (for example, see Samuel Arbesman’s list and José Luis Ricón’s list for examples of alternative models, as well as Michael Nielsen and Kanjun Qiu’s extensive introduction and list).
  • The problem of potential adverse side effects or even existential risks being caused by new technologies has received little to no attention so far. We need to better understand how (and to what extent) we can shape the direction of technological progress to avoid the development of harmful technologies. Research in this area could build on the literature on directed technical change, which includes both theoretical (Acemoglu 2002, Acemoglu et al. 2012, Popp et al. 2010) and empirical (Popp 2002, Hanlon 2015, Aghion et al. 2016) studies on the impact of various economic factors (such as prices of input) on the evolution of technology. Key books in this vein include those by Robert C. Allen and Carl Benedikt Frey. You could also explore what disciplinary norms best support socially responsible scientific progress (see Technical AGI safety research outside AI for related research questions).
  • Research could be helpful to ‘identify the most significant institutions for shaping global research policy and investigate how their decisions are made, the size of their budgets and their priority areas. This should include a survey of previous research on science policy development (e.g. by SPRU). (Improving science: Influencing the direction of research and the choice of research questions)
  • Inefficient practices and technologies often persist despite the availability of better alternatives. For example, Bloom et al. (2013) show that providing consulting on management practices to randomly chosen Indian textile firms increased their productivity by 17%. Research could address why firms do not adopt more productive practices (although this area might be less neglected, see e.g., Comin and Mestieri 2014 for a review of literature on technology diffusion).

Further resources

Further reading

Online courses

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you directly with researchers and potentially mentors who can help you refine your research ideas. 

Online locations for discussing this research direction include the Progress Forum, the Progress Studies Slack and others listed here on the Roots of Progress site. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in connecting with other students interested in this research direction.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

If you’re interested in exploring how institutions could be improved, read our profile on improving institutional decision-making. If you’re interested in exploring moral progress, see our profile on moral circle expansion.

Our profiles on preventing the release of dangerous pathogens and the governance of artificial intelligence may both be relevant if you’re interested in differential technological development.

Understanding how some progress occurs might require looking at long-term trends throughout human history; see our profile on the most important historical trends to learn more.

Contributors

This profile was last updated 9/01/2023. Thanks to Martin Kosik and David Janku for writing this profile. Thanks to Kris Gulati, Anton Howes and Matt Clancy for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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