ericgilliam

I head incubation projects for a social good incubator run by Steve Levitt at UChicago. I also publish the Engineering Innovation Newsletter on Substack.

If I could make wishes come true, I'd be president of MIT or run the NSF. But my tier 2 dream would be to help run a large academic lab or applied R&D lab one day.

https://freaktakes.substack.com/s/engineering-innovation

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How Karl Compton believed a research department should be run

So it's unclear, to me at least, whether this would grow or shrink the number of academic jobs. The number of "budgetary shot callers" would shrink by a lot since far fewer professors would have a bank account/grant to direct. But many of these teams would still require PhDs to be doing real research.

To many, that sometimes sounds like a demotion. But I think that's a knee-jerk way to look at it. You can liken many of the new roles to what it was like being one of the many many smart PhDs/professors who worked on something like the Manhattan Project or in the GE Lab. You had probably a sort of comparable amount of freedom since your mind was respected by your "bosses" and they let you explore how to find things out on your own, but you did your research while also productively working within a "team" rather than a loose collection of individuals with different goals entirely.

Of course there are certain jobs that PhDs currently do, such as writing software, that would probably be efficient to hand over to non-PhDs in many cases. But the whole operation would also work more efficiently with the unified budget and possibly have more money for PhD researchers as well. So I find it hard to tell whether jobs would be harder or easier to come by.

What publishing/conference norms do you think we should bring back?

I'm sure there are many changes to publishing/conferences that have been positive over the last 50 or so years. And I'd love to hear about those, too? But I'm primarily curious in what things we used to do pretty well that you think we've lost. If we come upon anything interesting I'd be happy to do a fleshed out research piece on it at some point.

We won the war on infectious diseases, but now we need to learn from it

I don't but I'm sure they could exist. My expertise with sources in this area is not as in depth as economics or physics history. The reason I was happy to go about publishing is because Grant Miller is known in econ world to be quite expert/careful and good at what he does. So I did have a certain faith that if in the three decades between Mckinlays writing and their papers he'd have rooted out and addressed the primary counterarguments in their two part research.

And of course I'm always open-minded to update my views as things come out now as well

We won the war on infectious diseases, but now we need to learn from it

Your point on the proper, theory-led goals of water sanitation is interesting. I think there's maybe a decent way for us to figure this out. 

The copy of Turneaure and Russel's water sanitation textbook I used was from around 1940. But the first edition of that was from 1901. If we could find some analogous top-tier sources utilized just before some insights from germ theory we could probably figure out how much of the best-practices in planning changed from before/after the pervasion of the theory. 

Do you think that would be fair or did I miss something? Because I'd believe you very well might be right. What I wrote was a fair representation of my sources but this is an area where I am very aware that my sources are few. So I don't hold these beliefs nearly as confidently as my views related to something like physics in the early 1900s where my reading has been far more exhaustive.

We won the war on infectious diseases, but now we need to learn from it

Hey everyone! I was really excited to share this piece and get everyone's thoughts on the general area, possible extensions, caveats I didn't think of, etc. 

Life sciences is not my particular area of expertise, so I was particularly excited to see what everyone thinks about all of this/if you know interesting books and work I can look in to to learn more.

When do ideas get easier to find?

Right?! I was so fascinated by that. I’d never realized what so many of the Moore’s Law type charts weren’t showing until I saw this one. I think it could be a really great project to try to crowdsource more of these charts as a community. For old and new tech. It would really give us a great peak into where we’re at and how things have changed over time.

I'm not really sure how to go about it because I'm not yet well-connected/don't have a big following, but there are surely people on the forum more plugged in than me who would know the right people who could contribute some of these charts. 

How curing aging could help progress

I wonder if another way to think about a piece of this problem is "how do we expand one's scientific/creative productivity peak." Now, don't get me wrong, I want to live 200 years as much as anybody here. So I want us to push for that also!

But it also does seem like a majority of our most progress-inducing ideas are not just coming from a severe minority of people, but happening in a severely limited age range of those people's lives. Mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. all have been known to be susceptible to this problem.

So, I could imagine a world where we extend lifespans without really expanding this productivity peak at all. And, there could be some good in that. But I'd also be quite interested if a piece of longevity focused on expanding our productivity peak. Under certain assumptions, I could see that doing just as much or more good for progress even if our life expectancy stayed fixed.

Thoughts?

Why is there no equivalent of the VC industry, but for patentable inventions instead of startups?

It's probably worth noting that this could also just be because this pipeline doesn't seem to exist. Like I know Peter Thiel comments that today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the mailroom of the white house.

Today, I could probably email HP the specs and proof of concept of a brand new kind of printer that printed an order of magnitude cheaper, was way easier to connect to, etc. And there's little chance they'd see it or respond. I think discounting the possibility that this just doesn't happen often because corporate bureaucracies aren't set up to handle it probably shouldn't be taken off the table.

And if the argument is more along the lines of "why have we not heard of a single person because surely it would have happened once?" The answer could likely be that once in a blue moon someone like IBM or NASA does take an idea from an absolute rando who they don't hire to implement it, but then they NDA that rando and we don't hear about him.

Why is there no equivalent of the VC industry, but for patentable inventions instead of startups?

So this is interesting because I have no clue if it exists. But it did!! This was the one and only thing the small R&D departments of large companies did in the US in the very early 1900s. 

Tons and tons of home inventors/amateurs would submit patents/specs to them to look over. The department would assess their scientific/technical validity and think about if they could profitably use the invention.

If they could, they'd come to an agreement with the inventor who sent it in. And it was efficient because there was no expectation for the inventor to also start the business that built on their patent. The company that already had the scale and ability to do that just bought your idea and then you could go on to the next one.

This equilibrium started to dissipate some time around like 1920-ish very roughly as more and more companies built internal R&D teams that did actual research/contracted with university professors to do it.

I talk more about some of this here: https://freaktakes.substack.com/p/is-americas-applied-and-basic-research?s=w

But in general, I completely agree with you that this is a criminal market oversight if it doesn't exist. And, more than that, it would just be cool and fun. 

Bombs, Brains, and Science

Thanks! I'll read them this weekend! Have a good weekend!

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