Progress Is a Policy Choice

January 20th 2022


We’re excited to announce that today we are launching the Institute for Progress, a new think tank in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to accelerate scientific, technological, and industrial progress while safeguarding humanity’s future.

Despite exhortations that the future is sprinting towards us at an ever-increasing pace, productivity growth has been in long-term decline since the 1970s. This is supposed to be the age of ambitious infrastructure investments in the battle to fight climate change, but we can’t even build new solar plants without being vetoed by conservation groups. Hyperloops and supersonic airplanes promise to revolutionize transportation, but building a simple subway extension in NYC costs up to 15 times more per kilometer than it does in other cities around the world.

The future we got is much weirder and more uneven than the one that we were promised. While software has succeeded in eating the world, it hasn’t been enough to cure our cultural malaise. U.S. life expectancy was flatlining for years before the pandemic and just suffered the largest drop since WWII. The pace of scientific progress has been slowing. And, shockingly, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that today’s children will be worse off financially than their parents.

Despite these worrying trends, there are genuinely exciting — potentially game-changing — discoveries on the horizon. 

New biotech innovations — spurred by the urgency of the pandemic — may finally deliver cures to some cancers, HIV, malaria, influenza, and EBV. New AI models are unfolding the secrets of the molecular world before our eyes. Electric vehicles are poised for a massive breakout. Commercial rocket launches are becoming such a regular occurrence that they hardly merit news coverage. And record investments are pouring into enhanced geothermal systems, advanced nuclear, and long-duration energy storage, which together could provide the globe with near-limitless clean energy capable of meeting baseload demand.

So how do we reconcile the shortcomings of American institutions with this profusion of possibilities before us?

Over the last 50 years, we’ve increased the number of veto points at nearly every governmental level, failed to invest in state capacity, and raised the stakes of the debate through polarization. So it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the federal government that went to the moon in 1969 botched production of simple diagnostic tests during a once-in-a-century pandemic.

To realize our potential and achieve the future that appears in reach, we will need to reform our governing institutions so that they are incentivized to drive progress rather than “follow the process.”

What we’re working on 

There’s a framework we like to borrow from the effective altruism community that says, to do the most good in the world, prioritize issues that are important, neglected, and tractable. When it comes to public policy, that means working on issues that matter a lot, that have only a few individuals or groups working on them, and that are within the realm of political feasibility. Applying this framework to the U.S. context leads to the perhaps surprising conclusion that a lot of the topics that dominate the headlines are not actually the most valuable policies to be working on.

We’ve identified three initial areas that we think meet this test and where we intend to spend most of our time and attention:

MetascienceHow can we change the incentives within science to produce more breakthrough research?

The U.S. federal government is the single largest source of science funding in the world. Despite how much we’re spending, we know surprisingly little about how the structures, incentives, and organizational models within science impact the results we get. But there are signs that something has gone wrong. Principal investigators report spending 44% of their time doing grant-related paperwork and maintenance (as opposed to active research). The average age of a principal investigator working at the National Institutes of Health rose from 39 years old in 1980 to 51 years old in 2008. And our scientific discoveries today appear to be less fundamental than previous advances as we continue to spend more resources. The researcher Pierre Azoulay has argued that we need to “turn the scientific method on ourselves,” and this is the direction we want to push public policy. 

We need more experimentation and diversification in the way the U.S. government funds cutting-edge science. We need to do a better job of funding young and talented scientists to work on their most ambitious, highest expected value ideas. We need to experiment with new funding and organizational models so that it’s easier to translate novel ideas from the laboratory to the market. Katalin Karikó, the groundbreaking heroine in the development of mRNA vaccines, was regularly turned away by our science funding institutions throughout the 1990s. We need to make sure the next generation of Dr. Karikós receive the support they need for novel research.

ImmigrationHow can we attract and retain superstar talent from around the globe?

For decades, the U.S.’s asymmetric advantage has been that many of the most ambitious individuals from all around the world desperately want to live and work here. Between 2000 and 2010, more immigrant inventors migrated to the US than to the rest of the world combined. We’ve benefited tremendously as a result. Nearly half of our billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants, and 80% featured immigrants in a core product design or management role. Though immigrants make up only 18 percent of our workforce, they produce 28 percent of our high-quality patents, comprise 31 percent of our Ph.D. population, and have won 38% of our Nobel Prizes in science.

Today, we face increasing competition to be the home for the world’s top scientists and technical practitioners. Unlike many of our industrialized counterparts, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, we have no dedicated pathway for entrepreneurs or high-skilled immigrants to live permanently in the country. China has been aggressively recruiting students to return home as Xi Jinping recognizes talent is “the first resource” in their innovation strategy. Unless the U.S. changes course, we run the risk of losing our asymmetric advantage.

Despite the apparent gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, high-skilled immigration remains a vitally important, yet neglected policy topic. In particular, reforms that leverage the wide scope of executive action are underrated. U.S. business groups pushing for change are more inclined to suggest a large expansion of the H-1B visa which binds immigrants to a specific company rather than more flexible programs like the O-1 visa for immigrants of extraordinary ability, the International Entrepreneur Rule, or more generic green card reforms for STEM talent. Through both legislation and executive action, the U.S. urgently needs to start taking a proactive approach to recruiting global talent. 

BiosecurityHow can we prevent future pandemics and accelerate progress in the life sciences?

COVID has revealed both strengths and weaknesses in our biosecurity response. On the one hand, the pandemic exposed how weak and ineffectual our public health systems are at controlling highly contagious airborne respiratory diseases. On the other hand, the urgency of the moment — combined with decades of previous investment — enabled us to deliver mRNA vaccines in less than nine months. 

To an extent, the U.S. (and the world) got lucky with COVID — it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that future pandemics will be even more infectious and deadly than COVID. This is the moment to lay down a strong foundation for our future defense and invest aggressively in new technologies and systems that can protect the world from both novel pathogens and existing diseases. 

We need to advance metagenomic sequencing capabilities that can quickly detect new viruses. We need to invest in wastewater surveillance systems so we can scale those virus detection capacities across the US. We need to build mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity so we can rapidly respond when new viruses attack. We need to leverage these systems to fight existing diseases like malaria, HIV, and influenza, which collectively kill millions of people a year. The pandemic has revealed that the life sciences contain much more low-hanging fruit — if we can only implement the right public policies.

Policy as roadblock or catalyst

Public policy is a double-edged sword. Regulation can unintentionally block new innovations from reaching the market and rob society of their benefits. Why do we give regulatory special treatment to oil and gas drilling on public land over geothermal drilling? Why hasn’t a single new nuclear power plant opened in the U.S. since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was created in 1975? Why has the FDA been so slow to approve new therapeutics, tests, and so many other essential goods during the pandemic? In these cases, regulation is the bottleneck holding back private companies from making investments.

But public policy isn’t only a bottleneck — it can also be a catalyst for innovation, operating through both “push” and “pull” mechanisms. The traditional push mechanisms include direct funding for R&D through grants and other subsidies that defray the cost of research (federal R&D funding was $139 billion in 2019). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) alone deserves at least partial credit for funding the development of mRNA vaccines, weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the PC, and the internet.

Pull mechanisms have yet to be used to their full potential. These tools include innovation prizes, advance market commitments (AMCs) and milestone payments. The two leading examples of success with AMCs are the pneumococcal vaccine and the COVID vaccine via Operation Warp Speed. The America COMPETES Act allows any agency head to authorize prize competitions up to $50 million and the federal government has conducted about 1,000 such competitions since 2010. Ideal policymaking is about removing as many bottlenecks as possible and using both push and pull mechanisms to shape and accelerate the path of technology.

Progress is possible in D.C.

Washington has a reputation for gridlock and partisanship. According to Gallup, only 12% of Americans have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. But this is partly due to a paradox: the issues that get the most attention in the media are often the ones that are least likely to gain traction in legislation, and vice versa. As Simon Bazelon and Matt Yglesias wrote in a recent piece, “Secret Congress” is how a bill becomes a law in modern DC.

For example, during former President Trump’s term in office, Congress banned surprise medical billing, raised the age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21, and made a $35 billion investment in clean energy R&D. The 116th Congress passed 233 substantive bills (notably, nearly half of them passed during the two-month lame duck period following the election).

And during the most recent crisis, Congress showed it can still get things done. So far, lawmakers have passed six major COVID relief bills totalling $5.3 trillion, or 27% of GDP — the largest fiscal response of any country in the world, on both an absolute and relative basis. During the first year of President Biden’s administration, Congress passed an infrastructure package that included $550 billion in newly authorized spending. The Senate also passed — with a 68-32 bipartisan majority — a $250 billion investment in science and technology called the United States Innovation and Competition Act.

These bills passed not on a wave of mass demonstrations in the street — but because they avoided activating partisan energy that would have unnecessarily polarized the issues and bundled them into the ongoing culture war. In the great partisan tug-of-war match, a surprising amount can happen by focusing on pulling the rope sideways.

Arguably even more important is engagement in executive branch policymaking. The various federal agencies have a huge degree of flexibility to shape the broad mandates they receive from Congress. Each year there are thousands of significant regulatory decisions, spending programs, and research agendas implemented by these agencies that impact U.S. dynamism as much as any law, but with far less publicity. Think tanks can help shape this process by developing and refining new ideas, providing technical assistance in the implementation process, and by coordinating engagement with outside stakeholders.

The upshot here is that even though influencing the course of policy is difficult, it’s still worth engaging with the process from an expected value perspective (i.e., even a small chance of changing a trillion dollar spending bill is important!). A nuanced understanding of the legislative and regulatory vehicles best suited to a particular new idea can dramatically increase the odds of success. And fortunately, lots of pro-progress fixes aren’t especially partisan — who doesn’t want cheaper subway construction or plentiful rapid tests? — so we can work with sympathetic policymakers from both parties to help them achieve some of their pre-existing policy goals.

Why U.S. policy matters for the world

Policy engagement is especially worthwhile in the U.S., when compared to other countries, because technological development and deployment exhibits a great deal of path dependence. The systems we have today are not purely the deterministic result of some exogenous force, and are often shaped by historical contingencies, including cultural norms and political priorities. The geography of where and when new technologies emerge is just as important as what new technologies we develop.

Though the U.S. has been stagnating, we are still uniquely positioned to push out the frontier on science and technology. With the rise of authoritarianism, it is more important than ever that the U.S. remains the R&D lab for the world. We are the only big, immigrant-friendly, liberal democracy. And as such, it is our moral responsibility to shape the development of new technologies. These three factors are essential for guiding technology on a path that enables rather than smothers human flourishing.

First, the U.S. is a big country – in every sense of the word: We are the largest country in the world by GDP and the third largest country by both population and landmass. Big countries are able to push the direction of technology directly through the number of researchers, scientists, engineers, and R&D dollars they can deploy; and indirectly by shaping trade, investment, and agglomeration patterns.

Second, the U.S. is an immigrant-friendly country. Talent is equally distributed around the world, but opportunity is not, so the most effective home for the technological frontier will be a country that can welcome the best and brightest minds from anywhere. While recent trends have threatened the U.S.’s status as the home for the world’s best and brightest, we still have by far the largest foreign-born population in the world, with 51 million immigrants (or 15.4% of our total population). And when Gallup asked potential migrants around the world which country they most wanted to move to, by far the most common answer was the U.S. (second was Canada).

Third, the U.S. is a liberal democracy. Given the path dependence of technology, we should want leading technology companies and cutting-edge scientific research to remain in countries where their development will be shaped by liberal democratic values. The rules and norms around the protection of free speech, research transparency, government censorship, etc. will inevitably shape the systems that are adopted globally.

While some countries might meet one or two of these criteria, no one else meets all three. The UK, Canada, and Australia are all immigrant-friendly liberal democracies, but not big countries on the world stage, so their ability to shape trends in global science is capped. Of the other big countries — China, India, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia — all of them have a foreign-born share of population of less than 1%, and all have a checkered history (to put it mildly) of liberal democratic political engagement. Germany perhaps comes closest to the U.S. on these metrics, but even they have a population one-fourth the size and an economy less than one-fifth the size of ours. Whether people like it or not, the U.S. is the nation best positioned to actively shape the trajectory of global science and technology in a direction that is compatible with liberal democracy while accelerating the creation of new tools we need to face climate change, global pandemics, and a host of other challenges.


The time is ripe for new (and renewed) institutions in the United States. We need to build new science-funding agencies, new pandemic prevention systems, and even new think tanks. 

We’re very thankful to be joining a larger chorus of voices in this space. Prominent writers on the center-left like Ezra Klein and Derek Thompson are calling for “supply-side progressivism” and an “abundance agenda.” These plans explicitly reject what the Niskanen Center calls “cost disease socialism” and set our sights on increasing the productive capacity of the economy rather than just shifting costs around. On the center-right, researchers like Eli Dourado and Jim Pethokoukis are urging American policymakers to go faster and aim higher. And exciting new intellectual movements like progress studies and effective altruism are building out frameworks for thinking about the relationship between innovation, public policy, and well-being.

It will take a community of ambitious and creative minds to reverse recent trends and break us out of our rut. But there is a clear path to an abundant future — because progress is a policy choice.