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AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Actually, this essay on the topic is great and actionable: support Ben's Speculative Technologies project!

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

I don't think we necessarily need more economic theory related to innovation, unless it's informed by new data and facts (which it is sometimes!). I just feel like we had that in spades for decades.

The biggest blindspot for economists of innovation that I worry about is that, actually, incentives just don't matter as much as we think. Engineering innovation may be much more a problem of finding the right people (not just right skills, but have a creative personality open to novel solutions), bringing the right people together, and so on. I'm not sure the right field to learn from on these topics though; still it's something I think a lot about!

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Afraid the implications are limited for the time being. Competition policy and innovation is a big and active research area, and one that I haven't dug into yet. It's too big a topic for one article.

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Different kinds of institutions are good at different kinds of things, and you ideally want a portfolio of different institutions.

  • Academic research is good at promoting non-commercial exploratory research that hews close enough to the community of experts to take advantage of critical feedback and allow for people to build on top of each other's ideas (classic article here)
  • Venture capital is good at innovation that is very valuable if it works, very uncertain if it will work, but where it is possible to learn relatively easily if an idea will work. (classi
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1mattclancy1yActually, this essay [] on the topic is great and actionable: support Ben's Speculative Technologies project!
AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

A really good research agenda needs to have two features: it should be an important problem, and you need an angle of attack on it. In the case of the economics of innovation, I think that biases the field towards studying sectors where there is readily available data, whether those are patents, granular data on productivity, approved drugs, or whatever. A lot of low-growth sectors - education, construction, government - are maybe areas where high quality data isn't as readily available. Or in some cases, innovation-relevant data might actually exist, but ... (read more)

0diamondcanyon1ythx -- I'm aware of Brian's work, will check out the handbook.
AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Yeah, this is a hugely important topic that is tough to appreciate from outside. I'm fond of this quote by Duncan Watts:

"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."

The conventional wisdom is that, at least in the USA, you need a think tank apparatus that specializes in digesting academic literature and packaging it for policy-making. That's one of the roles that the Institute for Progress plays on the metascience front. Also, this general topic is something I hope to look into more as a New Things Under the Sun post.

0Heike Larson1yExcited that you'll do some work on this, Matt--looking forward to reading it.
AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

It's been great that people I respect like the project, but the most important thing about it becoming popular is that I now get paid to do it. People sometimes say if you get paid to do something you previously did for fun, it kind of ruins it for you because it becomes work. That hasn't been my experience, probably because (1) I don't stress about view counts or anything anymore, and (2) I work on it a few hours each M-Th, but it's not my entire professional life (much less my whole identity).

The main thing that has changed as the project has become bigg... (read more)

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Probably the most concrete topic I've written the most about is the geographic distribution of an R&D workforce. I think one of my main takeaways is to not assume that everyone working together in the same building is as good as it gets, in terms of innovation, though it depends on the industry. Reasons to consider a more distributed workforce:

  • You can hire people who are a better fit for a specific role if you are set up for a remote workforce
  • A distributed workforce is exposed to a greater diversity of information environments
  • Modern communication techn
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AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

I will cheat and list two ideas, plus one irrelevant one.

First, let's start with some large-scale descriptive statistics of practices!

  1. How do different labs organize and manage their staff?
  2. How do different editors manage their journal and peer review process?
  3. How do different grant reviewers pick grants?

The goal is to see if there are obvious best practices; what kinds of stuff is correlated with good outcomes? This would be some kind of large-scale survey.

Second, I've always wanted to know more about the political economy of R&D. How do governments deci... (read more)

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

I think three different things might be true:

  1. Scientific and technological progress is getting harder
  2. But the pace of progress is steady because we try harder
  3. Nostalgia bias, the esoteric nature of modern advances, and general human crankiness makes people falsely believe the rate of progress is slowing more than it actually is

I'm pretty confident about #1 and #3, less sure about #2. We certainly are trying harder, but maybe not enough to keep the overall rate of progress steady. I go back and forth on this, but at least think the case for a slowing rate of p... (read more)

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

My basic view is that modern communication technology makes it pretty easy to communicate and exchange ideas with people, as long as you already have a relationship with those people. It's less well suited for forming relationships because it's not so good at helping you discover people outside what you think you're interested in (because we tend to go to websites catering to our interests), and because it's a bit harder to build deep trust without face to face meetings.

In-person events based around groups that have common interests but don't already know ... (read more)

1Heike Larson1yThanks, Matt, for the thoughtful response. My key take-aways are that (1) in person events are helpful to get new relationships going because of trust & discovery, and (2) we should keep these meeting small (or create smaller sessions in larger meetings) and (3) purposefully get people together who otherwise might not talk, and ideally have them not just be passive but work on something together in those sessions. Some good initial thoughts in any case; thank you!
AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Where are we strong? 

Across the sweep of history, the contemporary USA has got to be in the top 5% for it's cultural support for innovation. But I think that's mostly because the default state through human history has been so bad, rather than that we are so good![1] But it could be a lot worse! Elon Musk was person of the year in 2021!

It's true that a lot of people are down on innovation, but I think to some degree that has to be an inevitable part of the kind of free society you want where lots of different perspectives (itself important for in... (read more)

1Heike Larson1yI hadn't thought about the regional aspects, but it makes total sense, and it reminds me of this post by Paul Graham that talks about cities and ambitions: []
AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

The biggest single thing is the government simply pays for a very large chunk of science! In 2019, the federal government paid for 41% of US scientific research.[1] That was more than the private sector (33%), university system (13%), or the philanthropic sector (10%). It's true that if the US government stepped back these other sectors would probably step forward to shoulder some of the burden, but I doubt they would cover the majority of the short-fall. 

More broadly, I think science and innovation is pretty hard to predict. That means we ideall... (read more)

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

Among other things it's important that people think that of themselves as having the agency to solve big problems; that innovation and entrepreneurship - basically just pioneering new paths - is one of the things that it's normal to do with your life. I have written a bit about that here and here.

You can try to do that at scale by trying to impact pop culture, and I don't doubt that works to some degree. But I think the challenge is you are trying to convince someone that people like you can innovate too; and there is an inherent distance between what's in... (read more)

AMA: Matt Clancy, Open Philanthropy

We have some big picture stuff pretty nailed down. To start, long-run improvements in material living standards have long been understood to arise primarily from improvements to technology, which emerge from R&D. It's also pretty settled that much of the value of R&D spills over to people who are not the performer of R&D, and this means that in a laissez-faire system, R&D will be supplied at less than desirable levels. This problem is especially acute for fundamental science, which is primarily aimed at understanding how the world works. Mo... (read more)

The Curse of Plenty

Rick Rubin noticing the same problem in this Conversations with Tyler, on older vs. newer music in the era of streaming.

When something comes out by an artist that you love, it doesn’t have the same gravitas that it once had because it’s on this conveyor belt of music that’s always going by. Even the thing you love, you listen to it, but then there’s something new right behind it, coming right behind it, always something new coming right behind it. I don’t know how the music of today can get to the point of the canon of the music of the past based on that s

... (read more)
Tyler Cowen AMA

Thanks for doing this!

What is the most important domain for which talent is just not very important?

2Tyler Cowen1yFarting?
The Curse of Plenty

Thanks! I think there is also a pessimistic read, which is that these dynamics affect the direction of cultural creation; specifically, commercial creators will be pulled towards doing franchise-like work for anything expensive. Original and outlier work will have to happen on smaller budgets, where a smaller return can justify the investment. Whereas we used to get "expensive + original", now we'll probably have to content ourselves with "cheap + original."

2jakesmith1yThat's a good point. It seems potentially relevant that TV seems to have been most exempt from this trend (with all the "Golden Age of TV" discourse over the last decade or so), and TV is probably the one medium where financial results are furthest downstream from the production itself. There's a lot tighter feedback loop between a movie's popularity and its profitability than there is with a TV show. Maybe there's a lesson in there for how to promote creativity in other domains, but I'm not sure.
The Curse of Plenty

More evidence that, until quite recently, it paid to make a good movie to get a big audience, but that’s no longer the case. For several years, critics ratings for the top ten movies have steadily diverged from audience ratings.

The Curse of Plenty

Agree that franchises are fundamentally about branding!

But I think it's not just that it took movie studios a long time to learn that branding was effective. I think the strategy only became very effective in the new environment where there were lots of choices for consumers. One way to think of it is to assume that consumers rely on two pieces of information when making a judgment about which movie they will most enjoy: word-of-mouth and similarity to other movies they've seen and enjoyed. 

When the number of movies is small, enough people see every m... (read more)