Answering Your Questions
10 Q&A for 10,000 Subscribers
To celebrate passing 10,000 subscribers, last week I asked for questions from readers. There were too many to answer, but here’s an initial 10. If I missed yours, or you want to submit another question, I’m going to add a reader questions section to the bottom of my future updates posts, so feel free to ask a question using this form and I’ll try to get to it in the future. Otherwise, back to normal posting next time.
One more piece of news; I’ve joined Open Philanthropy as a Research Fellow! I will continue to write New Things Under the Sun while there, but among other things I’ll also be trying to expand the New Things Under the Sun model to more writers and more academic fields. More details will be coming down the road, but if you are an academic who wants to write the definitive living literature review for your passion topic, drop me an email (email@example.com) and I’ll keep you in the loop! I’m sad to leave the Institute for Progress, which continues to do outstanding work I really believe in, but I will remain a senior fellow with them.
On to your questions!
What is the most critical dataset that you would like to do research on but currently does not exist or is not available? - Antoine Blanchard
I’m going to dream big here: I would love to see a better measure of technological progress than total factor productivity or patents. One particularly interesting idea for this was suggested to me by Jeff Alstott.
Imagine we collected the technical specifications of thousands (millions?) of different kinds of individual technologies that seek to give a representative cross-section of human capabilities: solar panels, power drills, semiconductors, etc. There is some precedent for trying to collect technical specifications for lots of technologies, but it has typically been pretty labor intensive. However, gathering and organizing this data at a huge scale seems to be entering the realm of possibility, with the digitization of so much data and better data scraping technology. For example, we now have some inflation indices based on scraping price data from the web at a very large scale.
Once you have all this data, for each class of technology, you can map out the tradeoff among these specifications to map the set of available technologies. How tradeoffs evolve over time is a quite direct and tangible measure of technological progress. This kind of technique has been used, for example, to model technological progress in the automobile industry (see image below). You then need a way to normalize the rate of progress across very different domains, and to weight progress across different goods so we can aggregate them up to a meaningful measure of overall progress. Lastly, to be most useful for research, you would want to link all this data up to other datasets, such as data on firm financials, or underlying academic research and patents.
It would be a huge undertaking, but with modern computing power, I’m not sure it’s much worse than computing many other economic statistics, from inflation to GDP. And it would help remove some serious measurement issues from research to understand what drives innovation.
Can we quantify the impact of information and knowledge storage/sharing innovations, on the progress of innovation? Things like libraries, and more modern knowledge management systems. And obviously things like mobile characters and the printing press etc. What is the value of knowledge commons? - Gianni Giacomelli
Let’s start with the assumption that most good inventions draw on the accumulated knowledge of human history. If you can’t accumulate knowledge, I think most innovation would proceed at a glacial pace. Tinkering would still occasionally result in an improvement, but the pace of change would be evolutionary and rarely revolutionary. So if it’s a question of having access to accumulated knowledge or not having access, the value of having access is probably close to the value of R&D.
But our ability to store and access knowledge is itself a technology that can be improved via the means you suggest. What we want to study is the incremental return on improvements to this knowledge management system. Some papers have looked at this for public libraries, patent libraries, and wikipedia (see the post Free Knowledge and Innovation). Having a public or patent library nearby appears to have helped boost the local rate of innovation by 10-20%. One way to interpret this is that an improvement in the quality of knowledge commons equivalent to the difference between a local or distant library could buy you a 10-20% increase in the rate of innovation. Nagaraj, Shears, and de Vaan (2020) find significantly larger impacts from making satellite imagery data available, in terms of the number of new scientific papers this enabled. And other papers have have documented how access to a knowledge commons changes what kinds of works are cited: Zheng and Wang (2020) looks at what happened to Chinese innovation when the Great Firewall cut off access to google; Bryan and Ozcan (2020) show requirements to make NIH-funded research open access increased people citation of it. In each case, its clear access had a measurable impact, but it’s tough to value.
As an aside, my own belief is improving the knowledge commons gives you a lot of bang for your buck, especially from the perspective of what an individual researcher can accomplish. But of course, I’m biased.
I was wondering if there has been a significant long-term impact of internet on economic growth and if there is any evidence to suggest that any of the economic growth in the last 2 decades can be attributed to the rise of internet - Daniyal from Pakistan
There’s at least two different ways the internet affects economic growth. First and most obviously, it directly creates new kinds of economic activity - think Uber, Netflix, and Amazon. Unsurprisingly, this digital economy has been growing a lot faster than the non-digital economy (6.3% per year, compared to 1.5% per year for the whole economy, over 2012-2020 in the USA), but since it only counts for about 10% of the US economy, the impact on headline growth can’t have been too big yet. So, sure, the internet has contributed to faster economic growth, though the effect isn’t particularly large.
Second, and more closely related to the themes of this newsletter, the internet can also affect the overall rate of innovation (including innovation in non-internet domains). It allows researchers to collaborate more easily at a distance and democratizes access to frontier ideas. These impacts of the internet have been a big theme of my writing - see the post Remote work and the future of innovation for a summary of that work, and more specifically the post The internet, the postal service, and access to distant ideas. I think on the whole, the internet has likely been good for the overall rate of innovation; we know, for example, that it seems to help regions that are geographically far from where innovation is happening keep up. It also helps enable new kinds of collaboration which, though possibly less disruptive than their more traditional counterparts, might simply not exist at all otherwise.
It does seem a bit surprising the effect is not much larger though; why doesn’t having easy access to all the world’s written information multiply innovation by a factor of 10 or 100? The fact that it doesn’t suggests we should think of innovation as being comprised of lots of factors that matter (see this overview for some of those factors) and it’s hard to substitute one for the other. We get bottle-necked by the factors that are in short supply. To take a concrete example, it may be that the world’s written information is now at our fingertips, but the overall number of people interested in using it to innovate hasn’t increased much. Or that written information is rarely enough to take an R&D project across the finish line, so that we’re bottlenecked by the availability of tacit knowledge.
Research in developing countries is both cheaper and of lower perceived quality than that which is carried out in developed countries. To what extent are these two outcomes separable? Do you think it's conceivable that the former can improve to the extent that a large share of technologically sophisticated R&D will be outsourced in the future? - Aditya
I take it as a given that talent is equally distributed around the world, but I think developing countries face at least two main disadvantages in producing research that is perceived to be high quality. First, research can be expensive and rich countries can provide more support to researchers - not only salary support, but also all the other non-labor inputs to research.
Second, rich countries like the USA have tended to attract a disproportionate share of top scientific talent. As I’ve argued, while academic work is increasingly performed by teams collaborating at a distance, most of the team members seem to initially get to know each other during periods of physical colocation (conferences, postdocs, etc). Compared to a researcher physically based in a rich country on the scientific frontier, it will be harder for a researcher based in a developing country to form these relationships. Compounding this challenge, researchers in developing countries may face additional challenges to developing long-distance relationships: possibly linguistic differences, internet connectivity issues, distant time zones, lack of shared cultural context, etc. Moreover, we have some evidence that in science, the citations a paper receives are better predicted by the typical citations of the team member who tends to get the least citations on their own work. That means the returns to having access to a large pool of collaborators is especially high - you can’t rely on having a superstar, you need a whole team of high performers. Lastly, these social networks no doubt play a role in which papers get noticed by the broader scientific community, so that even if a paper from the developing world is just as good as one from the leading science nations, it may not be perceived as such.
These disadvantages are probably declining, though I doubt they will entirely disappear anytime soon. I suspect more R&D will begin to be done in the developing world, though probably not a large share. In particular, the rapid improvements in remote work technology over the last twenty years, coupled with the increased willingness of firms to collaborate remotely is probably good news for research in developing countries, since it could allow them to plug into these research communities from abroad. It remains challenging to forge initial ties remotely; but since the returns from doing so may be on the rise, there may be higher than normal returns to spending some time in frontier science countries today in order to form those ties.
Do you have a rough estimate based on your research for how often a researcher should change locations to have the highest chance of coming up with breakthrough ideas? Or asked differently: What is the optimal duration for a postdoc before you change locations again, if you want to have the best research output possible? - Florian U. Jehn
I gave this some thought in my post Innovation at the Office, but I don’t have a precise rule. Roughly speaking attending a conference with someone else seems to increase the probability of collaborating with them (ever) by 10-20%, while working in the same building increases the probability of collaborating (per year) by 100-200%! The underlying studies cover such disparate fields and contexts, that we should probably think of these as just orders of magnitudes, not precise figures.
What’s notable is that residing in the same building has more than 10x the impact of jointly attending a conference. But since we spend a lot more than 10x as much time at an office as we do at a conference, that suggests to me declining marginal effects on the probability of collaboration as a function of time spent together. Not too surprising. On the other hand, one of the best studies on this is Catalini 2018, which has this figure showing the probability of annual collaboration as labs spend more time adjacent to each other.
Here you see no evidence that the effects of proximity on collaboration are falling off over time (though I wonder what we would observe if we tried to adjust for the quality of collaborations - do high quality collaborations emerge early or late in the game?).
The evidence isn’t really strong enough here to be confident, but since some kind of decision has to be made, my suggestion would be that if all you care about is maximizing the set of potential collaborators, you should stay at each place as short as you can while still staying long enough so that people think it’s worth getting to know you. Another way to think about it is to keep an eye on how many new people you are meeting, or the number of relationships moving in a positive direction for future collaborations or not. When that falls off, time to move?
Of course, don’t only care about maximizing the set of potential collaborators. Even if it’s not so useful for innovating, there are other advantages to having long-lasting social relationships (said the guy who grew up in Iowa and now works remotely from there).
How do you choose which questions to investigate? - Michael Eddy
I would love to know more about your research and writing process. - Anonymous
Here’s what goes into the production of a typical article for New Things Under the Sun.
First, I have a long and evolving list of ideas for claim articles. I pick what to write off that list based on how I’m feeling and with an eye to switching up the topics from post to post. The ideas on that list emerge from both a top-down process and a bottom-up one. The top-down process is that there are usually some bigger picture topics I’m hoping to write an “argument” style article about, and those naturally suggest sub-claims that need to be written up. For example, as part of my recent long argument on path dependency, I knew I would need to write about patent stocks and simultaneous discovery.
In parallel, I also subscribe to a few email article aggregators and follow a lot of people on twitter. Whenever I run across an article that is relevant to one of the topics on the list, or just seems particularly interesting, I forward it to myself. Once a topic has about three related articles, I feel like I might have enough for an article. My recent post on remote breakthroughs was one of these bottom-up posts: there was just a lot of new interesting work on the topic so I decided to write it up.
By the time I pick a claim to write about, I usually have a few core articles I plan to anchor the post around. I read those, and then I look at what they cite and what cites them (it’s quite important to look at who cites an article; people can control who they cite, but they can’t control who cites them). Usually the act of reading the articles changes my idea of what the post is about or reminds me of other articles I would not have initially anticipated as being relevant. This usually results in a second longer round of reading. If this process keeps going, that usually means the claim I wanted to write about wasn’t narrowly enough defined, so I might narrow it down until I have something more manageable.
When I’m reading, I highlight, but I don’t take detailed notes. Instead, I try to write the post soon enough after reading that most of the relevant content is still stuck in my head (usually within a week). I also write with the articles at hand, and frequently need to reread sections. My views evolve further in the process of writing - explaining stuff helps identify holes in your thinking. Sometimes those holes can be plugged, sometimes not.
After I have a draft I like there is still a fair bit of work left, but it’s a bit more rote. I need to record the podcast, post everything to the web, update any links on New Things Under the Sun (which keeps track of not just what an article cites, but also which articles cite it). Lastly, I then translate the article into a series of anki flashcards so I don’t forget everything I learned over the months and years to come (I discuss this a bit more in the next question).
How do you personally integrate what you've learned through researching topics into your own workflow? In other words, given what you've found about remote v.s. office work, how did that change your working habits? - Connor Tabarrok
I can think of two main ways my research on innovation has impacted my personal workflow. Both revolve around making connections, albeit of different types.
First, I work remotely from Iowa, and my research on remote work has convinced me it’s achilles heel is, compared to the office, it does not passively help you build a social network (especially people who are not obviously connected to you professionally). Over the long run, that leads to stagnation. So I try to compensate by meeting a lot of people over zoom. I’m in the fortunate position of having a popular newsletter: at the end of each one, I issue an invitation to readers to email me for a virtual coffee. Between that and just introductions from people I already know, I probably meet a couple new people a week over zoom (if you want to chat, give me a shout! - firstname.lastname@example.org). Virtual coffee is also a nice way to cut up the work day, get a bit of variety, and add a bit of urgency to get things done. If I didn’t have three kids and a wife who works full time, I would also try to travel more than I do to meet people face to face.
Second, besides communicating and disseminating research, I think one of the highest impact contributions I can make with New Things Under the Sun is to see connections across previously disparate ideas. I do a few things to try and encourage these kinds of connections. First, this is one reason I have resisted adding guest writers to New Things Under the Sun: I want all the papers and ideas covered to live in one brain (my own), where they might have an easier time bumping up against each other. Second, I try to hop around topics from post to post, at least a bit. Lastly, since Spring 2022 I have been translating each article into a series of anki flashcards for my personal use. I review these cards a few times a week (anki’s spaced repetition algorithm means I don’t actually review all of them at once). The goal is to keep alive the ideas I’ve written about in the past, the better to see connections with new work.1
What is the most likely species to be dominant on earth if not for Homo Sapiens? - Bpw Zealand
(This question is a good excuse to talk a bit about the deepest roots of innovation, but also, I’m not a biologist, so, you know, this is also just a shot in the dark.)
When it comes to being the dominant species, in the long run, I think intelligence trumps pretty much all else. So I’ll interpret the question as asking which species is most likely to develop intelligence on a par with humans. And let’s set aside primates to make it interesting.
One of the big lessons I took from Joseph Henrich’s wonderful book The Secret of our Success is that humanity’s super power is not our individual intelligence but our collective intelligence. The trick is not that our brains got big enough to crack hard problems; but rather that we got cooperative enough to break hard problems down into millions of little problems that our little brains can handle. Henrich has these wonderful stories of very clever and capable humans being dropped into unfamiliar settings and having a very difficult time surviving, much less thriving, as compared to the local inhabitants who have access to ideas and innovations developed and retained throughout their history.
So, the species most likely to develop human-level intelligence is not necessarily the one that is smartest, but the one that is smart enough and which is most likely to develop the extreme levels of cooperation that eventually can flower into collective intelligence. I would look for an animal that is pretty clever, lives in groups, and has an evolved form that makes manipulating the physical environment possible. All that considered, I give it to the birds.2
What is your favorite book and author? - Anonymous
Can a book really be your favorite if you’ve only read it once? Limiting myself to books I’ve read at least twice, it’s got to be either The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton or The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin (maybe things will change if I get around to rereading Middlemarch). Both are about the oppressive forces of social conformity and status seeking. I can admit The Dispossessed could be criticized for being too simplistic and didactic in the half of the book set on what is effectively “planet capitalism.” But I think it’s portrait of life in the anarchist world is nuanced, realistic, and full of wisdom about the stuff of life that matters. And I like that it implies the way we organize society is itself a kind of technology, in that different ways of being need to be discovered and consciously built.3 For me, the good stuff is good enough to elevate it to one of my favorite books.
Favorite author is probably Karl Ove Knausgaard. I certainly have read more of his books than anyone else.
What advice do you have for someone trying to make the world a better place through the economics Ph.D. route? - Max from Ohio
(Am I qualified to answer this? Your mileage may vary. But at a minimum, I have talked about precisely this question with some great economists who I think are making the world a better place)
If you want to use an econ PhD to make the world a better place, you’re probably talking about doing research (or something like research) to generate knowledge that changes beliefs, and hence actions, out in the world. To do this effectively, I think the big thing is to proactively build a network with people who are outside academia and taking action to make the world a better place in your judgment. Better yet if those people are actually accomplishing stuff you think is valuable. Honestly, your network does not need to only be non-academics, but if they are in academia, I think you want to look for academics working with people outside academia.
This is for a few reasons.
First, in economics we’re used to thinking of people as having a fixed set of preferences, but that’s not really true. Our preferences change and are shaped by our life experiences, especially our social experiences (I’ve written about this a bit in the context of entrepreneurship). Academia can gradually change your preferences such that you really will come to see academic success as the thing in life to aim for. Academic success is great and we need people seeking to simply improve our understanding of the world. But if you are writing this question to me, that suggests you are looking for something different. It will be useful to surround yourself with people who have different kinds of aspirations, to insulate yourself against becoming too parochial in your interests and ambitions.
In my own career, I think a major factor in me starting an unusual-for-academia project like New Things Under the Sun and committing so much to it stemmed from being embedded in my university’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program,4 in addition to the standard economics department. That meant I spent a lot of my work time with various entrepreneurs-in-residence, not only traditional academics. And I think that changed my views about what kinds of work was worth spending time on.
Second, while any good Econ PhD program will give you the skills to do quality quantitative research; it probably won’t train you in getting your ideas into the heads of people outside academia whose actions can impact the world. There’s a great quote by the sociologist Duncan Watts on this problem:
For 20 years I thought my job was, as a basic scientist, publish papers and throw them over the wall for someone else to apply. I now realise that there's no one on the other side of the wall. Just a huge pile of papers that we've all thrown over.
You need to find a way to teach yourself how to get your ideas into the heads of people who can use them to take action in the world. Don’t just write articles (or books) and assume the right people will read them. Among social scientists, the kinds of people whose actions are informed by economic research tend to be the government and the associated world of think tanks, philanthropy, and business. Get to know these people; do internships, fellowships, serve on panels, do temporary tours of duty, whatever you are able.
Lastly - working with these kind of people may also have the effect of subtly influencing what you choose to research, providing a useful North star for the relevance of your work.
Thanks for reading!
Give the Conversations with Tyler episode with Richard Prum a listen for some examples of cooperative birds.
In that sense, it is yet another science fiction story about a technology that we don’t (yet?) know how to make work in our own world.
Since renamed “Start Something: College of Agriculture.”