I read the essay.

It's time to fund more research.

For those of you fortunate enough to not know or not care, Marc Andreessen wrote an essay. People lost their shit. It’s Time to Build is a call to action to innovate coming out of the CV19 crisis and focus on bigger, more ambitious projects.

The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things […]

Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building. There are always outstanding people in even the most broken systems — we need to get all the talent we can on the biggest problems we have, and on building the answers to those problems.

Cool. Like so much by tech luminaries, the essay reads like something written by someone who's never taken a social studies class or paid attention to politics or history except insofar as it relates to Great Men of Business.

Andreessen is right that accomplishing huge breakthrough projects requires an ambition and risk tolerance that we presently seem to lack. It’s very much in the vein of “we were promised flying cars and all we got was 140 characters,” and even acknowledges that. But the essay lacks any consideration of the structural factors or incentive problems getting in the way beyond the plea to "demand more" of various types of leaders.

Want a specific actionable suggestion? Provide 10x more funding for basic research.

The Apollo Mission and the Human Genome Project are incredible feats of human ingenuity and we are still reaping their benefits. They were also only possible with massive, unthinkable infusions of taxpayer support.

To understand why, look at the difference between “basic” and “applied” scientific research. Applied research has measurable ROI, focuses on direct (commercial) applications, and generally operates on relatively short timelines and budgets. Think of Ford-employed engineers and scientists working to make a car 10% more fuel efficient by studying wind resistance and weight distribution. Worthy and valuable.

Basic research, on the other hand, is generally tedious and fruitless. 1000 researchers in 100 labs might spend a decade each on the thermodynamics of batteries with nothing to show for it. But maybe the 101st lab on the first day of the 11th year will run into a physics or chemistry problem their model cannot solve. They’ll need to rework that model and in so doing, maybe they’ll discover something novel about battery construction. Maybe that novel thing will stand up to scrutiny and peer review. Maybe it will be reproduce-able in other labs. Maybe then it will lead to a new way of thinking about batteries which in turn might spur a surge of new research that could lead to a novel battery altogether potentially paving the way for 10x more efficient electric cars in another decade. But maybe not.

See the difference?

Basic research needs to be publicly funded because it requires massive scale and has unclear/unpredictable benefits on indeterminate timelines. Understandably, corporate shareholders don’t love that. Even if they did, private companies don’t have the capital to fund enough basic research and wouldn’t have the incentives to put its results in the public domain. If basic science is guarded as trade secret rather than shared publicly, its potential impacts are severely hampered; basic research can only be as groundbreaking as the applications it eventually spurs. The one private entity with a real track record of funding and sharing basic research was Bell Labs, which eventually led to the failure of its parent company.

Without basic research, scientific progress runs into natural limits and technological progress faces diminishing returns eeking out percentage points of efficiency rather than making great leaps or paradigm shifts. To unlock the next phase of technological and social progress, we need the desire and ambition but we also need the funding.

We are falling down miserably on this front.

Exhortations to service are great and we should certainly demand more from our political and business leaders. Nothing will actually change until we recognize the structural causes beyond just laziness, lack of ambition, or shortterm-ism. Why do we have ample military funding, Andreessen asks, when we can’t fund public projects?

Is the problem money? That seems hard to believe when we have the money to wage endless wars in the Middle East and repeatedly bail out incumbent banks, airlines, and carmakers. The federal government just passed a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package in two weeks! Is the problem capitalism? I’m with Nicholas Stern when he says that capitalism is how we take care of people we don’t know — all of these fields are highly lucrative already and should be prime stomping grounds for capitalist investment, good both for the investor and the customers who are served. Is the problem technical competence? Clearly not, or we wouldn’t have the homes and skyscrapers, schools and hospitals, cars and trains, computers and smartphones, that we already have.

But this is ass backwards. We have the money to fund things when there are people to advocate for them. People can advocate for them when they stand to profit and benefit directly. Of course those fields attract private investment but where specifically the money goes and to what end is colored by the demands of private capital - namely timely ROI. And as for those smartphones and cars and buildings, they are all relying on basic research done decades ago. We have refined and enhanced but we have not replaced. Until or unless we fund research at a huge new scale, we will be stuck on our present loops and limited by the boundaries of our basic knowledge. We will feel like we are making progress but we will be living in basically the same world with basically the same rules.

What if the real sophon block was defunding the NSF?


Anyone who is really interested in this should read two books:

  1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Khun. It’s the precursor to the oft-quoted by rarely understood Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. Funny enough, Christensen was effectively applying Khun’s theoretical work on the field of science to the field of business - thereby reproducing the exact dynamic they were each describing.

  2. Three Body Problem and Dark Forest by Cixin Liu.