Jan 27 • 53M

Caleb Watney: onward and upward with progress

The beginning of The Institute for Progress

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Caleb Watney is the co-president of The Institute for Progress (along with Alec Stapp), which exists to foster innovation and technological advancement through public policy levers. Founded in January of 2021, The Institute for Progress declares itself a “think tank for accelerating scientific, technological, and industrial progress.” 

Razib’s first major question is why such a think tank even needs to exist. Isn’t there a huge complex of research universities in the US? Caleb outlines many problems with academic science in the US, with 40-45% of primary investigators’ (lab heads’) time being spent on writing grant applications to fund their labs. The preferences of the funding institutions and the size of the grants, determine the course and scope of research. With this in mind, rather than targeting interesting questions, many academics target questions that are fundable. 

As for why he needed to found a new think tank as opposed to expanding out of an established one like Niskanen or Brookings, Caleb argues that fresh institutions are often necessary for innovation, and it was important to start something without legacy baggage so they could talk to both Republicans and Democrats. The Institute for Progress is an attempt by public policy entrepreneurs like Caleb to break out of Washington D.C.’s paralyzed and polarized two-party dynamic.

The Institute for Progress also has a broad scope, targeting topics as diverse as security, space, and life science. Razib and Caleb talk about the miracle of mRNA vaccines in tackling COVID-19 (a sharp contrast with the health establishment’s numerous failures in confronting the pandemic), and the incredible possibilities for future vaccine development, from rapid targeted development to general-purpose vaccines. They also tackle how and why SpaceX happened, and what it means for spaceflight in the 21st century and beyond. Then they address the differences between the effective altruism movement and the progress studies movement, and the relationship between them. Whatever differences exist, both movements channel the spirit of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

They conclude the conversation talking about China, its promise and peril, and US immigration policy. Caleb argues that the challenge of China is fundamentally different from that of the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union had roughly the US’s population, China is a far larger nation-state in terms of raw numbers, so it presents a much more formidable economic opponent. The US’s advantage over the Soviet Union was its capitalist framework, but it does not have this edge over a nominally Communist China. One of the ways Caleb argues we can forestall being superseded by China is to allow for more immigration, specifically high-skill immigration. A major project of The Institute for Progress is to help fix our broken immigration system, and so rebuild America’s stock of human capital in the coming rivalry with China.

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