9:03AM Jan 25, 2022
This podcast is brought to you by the Albany public library main branch and the generosity of listeners like you. What is a podcast? God daddy, these people talk as much as you do! Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning
Alright everybody. I am here with the unsupervised learning podcast with Caleb Watney. Caleb, could you introduce yourself?
Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I am the co founder of the newly launched Institute for Progress. We are a DC based think tank covering meta science, immigration and bio issues.
Okay. So, Caleb, you know, I know you do Twitter and when you were at R Street and various other places in DC, we've met IRL so you know, I enjoyed having beer with you. And I think you're you're doing this with Alec Stapp. Correct? Yeah. Yeah. So everyone check out Alec and Caleb Watney on Twitter, great accounts to follow to keep up, you know, up to speed on everything. And, you know, I would also definitely say like they're kind of white pills. For the people out there who think in terms of pills, like a lot of positivity, and kind of, usually when I see their tweets, it's usually not about how we're going to go extinct in 2030. Our society is collapsing in a wave of immorality, you know, very little Sohrab Ahmari energy there, more - Steven Pinker "enlightenment now". So I just want to give people a taste of that. So what are you guys doing with the new Think Tank? Like, what's your deal?
Yeah, so we're trying to, I think, be the DC boots on the ground for kind of these two emerging groups that we thought were pretty underrated in DC. So the first is the progress studies community. I think taking a deep look at how can we actually accelerate the rate of progress? Why has it been slowing down? Especially in areas like science, it seems like we're getting fewer and fewer advancements. Our kind of calcified institutions are doing a worse job at getting the you know, that next incremental breakthrough, and how can we reverse that? And then Effective Altruism, and especially some of these long term concerns How can we make sure that, you know, we're ready for future risks be a you know, another global pandemic, or asteroids or you know, any number of risks we might be facing in the future. So, in some sense, the mission for the organization is to accelerate the rate of scientific, technological and industrial progress, while safeguarding humanity's long term future.
Yeah, I mean, that sounds really awesome. It kind of sounds like a science fiction novel. You know, I mean, like, if I, if you told, like a 14 year old like kid with a nerdy bent, that this is your job, they brought me like, how do I get that job?
It's great. It's kind of, you know, Foundation-esque, how can we help humanity walk the straight and narrow?
Yeah, so um, why do you need to exist? We got the NIH, we got the NSF, we got all of these things like why do you need to exist? Like make your case?
Yeah, I think it's good to have external voices to kind of play a check in the ecosystem, as well as to kind of formalize and institutionalize a bunch of voices and interesting research that's not very legible to DC right now. So I sometimes use the example, jumping topics a little bit, but monetary policy, there's this idea called nominal GDP targeting, which I think is like a pretty persuasive and interesting case for how the Federal Reserve should be better, you know, thinking about its mandate. And this was an idea that mostly took off on the internet. It was something that was very active in blogs, and on Twitter and amongst financial journalists around 2007 2008. But it was pretty hard for it to penetrate into the policy world, you couldn't necessarily go to a staffer at the Federal Reserve and say, "Oh, here's this 20 part blog series that you should be reading. It's really compelling." That's just, you know, sort of not how our DC institutions work. And so the Mercatus Center started up a new center for monetary policy and economics. They took some of the brightest stars from this movement. And they really formalized the movement, they they put it through the wringer they, you know, created the definitive 10-15 page paper that you needed to read if you wanted to understand what the nominal GDP targeting was or how it would work. And we think that there's a bunch of ideas in these communities of progresses and Effective Altruism that are kind of ready for this formalization process. And I think we can be an institution in DC to help make them legible. And so right now, you know, NIH, NSF, there's a lot of, I guess, homogeneity in the thinking about how they're structuring grants, and we want to be a voice in the room pushing for more breakthrough, more experimental research and funding younger scholars from less traditional research institutions. I think demonstratively that's not the direction that these institutions have been going.
Well, so a lot of the listeners of this podcast I know are academics and they are in academia. And, you know, to be entirely frank, a lot of people in academia are a little bit blind to what's happening in the system. Because, you know, they know their own area, they know their own research, they know what grant panels they're on. And you know, it's progressing at a certain pace in a certain way. And so what I would say to the academics is actually like, let's think back to, like a year and a half, more than a year and a half ago during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. And, you know, to be entirely frank, I, you know, I follow academic social media, a lot of them follow me. And, you know, February 2020, they were they were not worried about Coronavirus, that was not their focus, I can tell you what their focus was, like, February 17, there was an article about how they were piling on Richard Dawkins because he said something about eugenics. I mean, these are priorities right, you know, so we could do Richard Dawkins said something stupid. Whoa, whoa, like, I mean, that's, you know, so just, I'm just pointing out like, they can be a little bit narrow, you know, short sighted, and, you know, Alex Tabarrok, and, you know, Tyler Cowen, GMU, they started getting kind of interested in okay, how do we handle this pandemic very early. And they said some things that were offensive to a lot of academics, and they were like, stay in your lane, they were literally thing, you know, they you need to not, you need to like mind, your own business, and all this stuff. Um, I personally feel like a lot of academics have not internalized the fact that they were behind the curve, that even though people like Alex and Tyler were offensive to them in terms of, you know, challenging their authority, you know, their credentials, their lanes, that they have made a lot of, you know, change, they have affected a lot of change, that's been positive, because they thought outside the box that kind of broke things and, you know, move things forward, as opposed to the slow plodding pace of just the way the academic cycle works with grants and peer review and whatnot. And so with the pandemic, and COVID-19, a lot of things have accelerated. And I think, you know, we see the downsides of the conventional process, a how gradual and slow it is. And we need a more I would, I would say, to the academics in the audience, we need a more diverse portfolio of methods and tools to figure out innovation, exploration, basic science, Applied Science, like would you say that? You know, I mean, we're probably on the same page on that.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Yeah, I think, even where maybe academics are aware of a problem, they the institutions that are meant to sort of be addressing these can be very slow. I mean, so just take a very maybe naive example, if you look at the the amount of time that 'Principal Investigators' are spending on sort of grant management applying for new grants, doing all the related paperwork, this has been a known problem for at least, you know, the last 10-15 years, there have been big, you know, congressionally commissioned reports about you know, what percentage of time are PI's spending on these sorts of tasks. And even though we've known about this for the last 10-15 years, there haven't been any tangible improvements. I mean, they do, you know, study every couple years trying to see, okay, what's the percent of time and it's hovered around, you know, 40 42% for the last 10-15 years, even though there's been so much of a spotlight on it. So I would say sometimes, even where there's a tension or acknowledgement within the academic community about problems, that doesn't mean that necessarily the the institutions we have are responding appropriately to them. Another example, I would say, using this this COVID crisis as an example, you know, Tyler Cowen, and Patrick Cowsen did this really innovative, interesting grant system called fast grants, the idea being that they were hearing from a lot of academics, that they would like to repurpose some of their research funding that they got, especially from the NIH, towards, you know, COVID related projects, which is a very understandable and natural desire. And they were hearing back from NIH that this was going to be like, a nine month or one year process to really re evaluate whether or not they could be given the flexibility to reuse their grants towards - you know, some new product or some new process. And that wasn't nearly fast enough to respond to the pandemic. So they were able to really push out many millions of dollars out the door, responding very quickly, I think they reviewed all applications within you know, 24 to 48 hours. And they funded a lot of really interesting and valuable projects. But this was not the kind of flexible, agile institution that the federal government were not - they weren't providing that kind of service. And you really had to look towards external bodies or private philanthropy to do that. But there's no reason why we couldn't try to push more of that attitude towards our existing grant making institutions.
Well, so you know, let's let's let's talk about a little history because I think that people might not know this, but believe it or not, the NSF and the NIH did not exist in the 19th century. And innovation happened. So do you think that, you know, we moderns like you know, 2021 people 2022 people, whatever, in this particular age, that we kind of forget that these are historically contingent institutions historically contingent processes A lot of innovation that happened before and outside of them.
Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, there's so of course, a lot of confounding factors, you know, like, it might be the case that ideas are getting harder to find perhaps and, you know, maybe the the professionalization of science, you could call it moving from sort of one/two person teams, maybe funded by like an individual p atron or something to these more, you know, mega industrial style, you know, academic labs that are being funded by big federal bureaucracies. I think it's come with a lot of downsides. But it may have also been inevitable on some margins, as you're kind of pushing for this process of specialization. But I think it's certainly the case that our science funding ecosystem is a lot more centralized and almost more of a monoculture now than it used to be. If you look at, you know, the 1960s 1950s, science funding was coming from a lot of different sources, it was both the case of the NSF and NIH were being, you know, spun up at this time. And we're funding a bunch of really interesting projects. But you also have a lot of, you know, big corporate R&D labs, like Bell Labs, The Xerox Parc, that were pushing out the frontier. And sciences also, I guess, where scientists were was a bit more uniform, like they weren't all just doing research in academic labs, they were in a variety of different kinds of institutions that had different kinds of incentives pulling on them, or different biases pulling in one way or another. And so yeah, if you're thinking about our scientific ecosystem as a whole, I think the portfolio has really been a little bit too heavily concentrated on academia, and academia is great, and has a lot of valuable use cases. But I think on the margin, we could now rebalance that portfolio away from academia and towards other kinds of science funding institutions.
So do you think that maybe part of the issue here is there are certain things that academic science as its, let's talk about the United States, that's what I know- I think that's what most listeners know, as a substantiated in the United States, that there are certain things that it's good at other certain things it's not good at. And what's it good at? What's it not good at?
Yeah, so the the current, especially academic system, is pretty good at, I guess, pushing forward incremental breakthroughs in basic science fields. So if you want to, you know, get like, the next incremental paper that's building off of an existing paradigm, that sort of, you know, coming from big established research universities like MIT, Harvard, etc, we're really good at doing that. And we're really good at you know, maybe applying new methods to pre existing problems, or, you know, getting a slightly better microscope. And you're really seeing does that like unlock not some new results that we haven't seen before. I would say what is less good at are two things. One is maybe like breakthrough science, like trying to find not just what's the next incremental research within the existing paradigm, but what's some new thread that might like totally blow up the field and reconstruct it in some new way, which usually comes from heterodox thinkers that I think have a harder time getting funding in the first place. And two, I'd say is this kind of like commercialization pipeline, I think there's a bunch of interesting ideas that we have developed or have shown promise, but they're still they're almost like too commercial to make sense is something you could publish an academic journal, or they may be required too much coordination for a single Research Lab at university. But they're also too early stage to really get funding from venture capitalists, or for more traditional private sector sources. And so there's sort of this this valley of death, where ideas can be very promising, but not quite be brought to reality. I mean, as an example, you could say mRNA vaccines, it seems quite likely that if we had really pushed on that earlier, as a technique, we might have been able to develop mRNA vaccines and say, the early the mid 2000s. But instead, it kind of I think, fell into this valley of death, because there just wasn't like a, a proper application that people were excited about for is to easy to go with pre existing methods or techniques. And so instead, we had to wait till 2021 to get mRNA vaccines.
Yeah, I think, um, one analogy that for some of the listeners, who aren't scientists that I would use is, it's almost like a lot of academic science says you're building a bridge to cross the river you have, you know, you know, what the target is, you know, what the goal is, and you're building the bridge, step by step. This is the work of decades of careers have multiple careers within like a lineage within a particular tradition, right. And sometimes, you want to build a plane to get to the other side of the plateau. And this system doesn't work, too well. I mean, they're not going to fund they're not going to do like, you know, 50 years funding for some research group, you know, to do this, I mean, some people will, but you know, it's pretty rare, right?
I think that's right. I think there's also maybe sometimes questions that fall like at the intersection between the basic and applied problems that end up falling into this gap. So as an example, you could say, a very, a question that's firmly within the realm of basic science, like, what is human consciousness? How do we understand it? How does it work? It's a very hard problem. But one of the things that be very beneficial, I think, in moving us towards a better understanding of that is just having a better set of tools for mapping the brain in the first place. We're still sort of early On the previous generation tools and and so there's been some interesting efforts to really just come up with a new toolkit. And that like, coming up with a better toolkit for mapping the brain is a very applied question that you almost need to have solved before you can go back to the basic question of what is human consciousness. But it's not necessarily obvious that there's a huge market right now for a better set of toolkits for mapping the brain, or the people who would be using it the most like, the most would be probably other basic science practitioners, especially early on. And so I think that's another example of like, maybe a blind spot spots in our current science funding ecosystem.
Yeah, so we find we find all this science, and you're basically saying, I mean, would you say it's a kind of calcified, I mean, I'm just trying to think of the best analogy to communicate. Because, you know, for a lot of people out there who aren't scientists, science is, okay, like, they see something on TV, some guy in a lab, you know, they got a coat, you know, some woman's at a computer, or whatever, and they do their thing. And it's like magic, you know, but really, it's this whole cultural process. And, you know, we've made it effective and efficient, and the American system is kind of spread all around the world. And this is what science is - And are you kind of trying to say that, you know, we need to break out of this mold a little bit, at least in this century, to make some breakthroughs, like legit breakthroughs, that kind of like shift paradigms kind of go orthogonal to the expected.
I think that's right. And I think one of the easiest ways to do that is just try experimenting with both new incentive designs and new, I guess, like, organizational structures, you could say, like, at a very meta level, the United States, and I think a lot of the science funding ecosystems across the world have been hesitant to apply the scientific method to the way that we fund an organized science in the first place, which is why it's kind of like this meta science issue. It's a really, that would be like, I think, like, the first best approach is let's just try a bunch more experiments, let's get more data on what might work well. So I think, trying to do some like lotteries, to really almost bring in a randomized aspect of which parts of the current science funding approach in terms of the application stage, in terms of the leader requirements that we have on them in terms of deciding who gets future grants in terms of citing how labs are structured, all these things, you can imagine introducing some amount of randomization and just to get like a baseline of like, which parts of the process are actually working here or not. And then separately, I think would be good to just have some more radical experimentation. I think an idea I'm very excited about is this idea of focused research organizations, which is an idea discussed by Samuel Rodriguez, and Adam Marblestone and a paper that they wrote for the Day One project, the idea being that there are some categories of problems that, as I mentioned, either fall at sort of the intersection of these basic and applied things, or would benefit from an organizational structure that is a lot more rigorous, but also flexible than maybe a national lab or a current, you know, academic lab could accompany and so almost like a startup like organizational system, that sort of separate from the government bureaucracy, but has public funding and a public funding mandate, and also has maybe a clearly delineated, like, your goal is to create a better set a better set of tools for mapping human brain, and at seven or eight years, regardless of what's happened, like the projects have been shut down there. And it almost allows you to create a bit of like institutional creative destruction, which is I think, another thing that we're sort of missing it from our ecosystem,
Yeah kind of - kind of, have like a sprint to try to hit a target. And then when the target fit, you know, that's that, like, it doesn't continue for decades and decades. So you said you, you said something Effective Altruism earlier. And you know, I obviously you know, I know what that is, and a lot of listeners know what it is. But can you talk a little bit about Effective Altruism and how it's related to your thought process? Totally.
So yeah, the Effective Altruism community has grown, it's like a little bit older than Progress Studies It is insofar as progress studies were coined, you know, two or three years ago in the Atlantic essay from Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison. Effective Altruism has been a little bit longer, but it also has sort of like grown and developed a lot of the movement, I think it's probably like most popularly known for a lot of its work and international aid, and sort of like, Oh, should we be doing anything to, you know, send more bed nets overseas, or anti malarial pills or deworming pills and how that compares to say, sending textbooks or whatnot. But it's really fundamentally focused on how can we do the most good on a per dollar or like per hour basis with our time and resources. And so a lot of their focus has been on sort of this international global health and well being, but they've also cared quite a bit about the category of existential risks, if we could, through better preparation and planning today prevent, you know, future pandemics that might wipe out, say, the entire human race, or at the very least, you know, hundreds of millions of people, and we can take small actions today to decrease that likelihood, then that ends up looking, you know, very positive on this sort of, you know, long term per hour per dollar spent basis. And so, the Effective Altruism community has been sort of cataloguing and thinking pretty deeply about what are these categories of risks that we should be trying to They'll do more to prevent or at least think about right now. And I think you could even say like maybe a slightly thinner version of Effective Altruism would just be a very useful framework that we found for thinking about policy areas, which is one, what is significant? If you were to actually make a change on this. Like, would it matter? You could say, in some sense, you know, the issue of rising costs and textbook prices is a problem. I mean, textbooks have risen almost astronomically compared to other issues. But even if you fix that, that wouldn't like actually add that much to global GDP, like students would probably be happier. But it's not like the most significant problem you could be solving. Two theirs, there's neglectivness, how much is your individual action going to help actually push the ball forward? If you're working in an area that is already very saturated, there's already hundreds of organizations pushing or lobbying or trying to make changes on, you're probably less likely to be like, the person whose efforts really pushes the ball forward in a meaningful sense. And so if you can work on neglected issues, you can also have a higher impact. And the third is tractability. Is it likely that you could actually make a difference on an issue, say within the next five years if you really put a lot of time and effort on it. So Alec, and I basically ran that sort of neglectedness, intractibility and significance formula over the current policy landscape, and that's how we chose on our initial priority areas.
Hmm. Okay. So it's just so so so think tank is you and Alex right now? Yeah.
And then we've also hired two other individuals, we have another immigration analyst, Jeremy Neufeld, as well as Nicky Karen, who's helping lead our biosecurity portfolio to begin with. And then we also have a couple of sort of part time relationships with other bloggers, sub stackers, people that we think are underrated. So Matt Clancy, who runs a really great website called New Things Under the Sun. It's sort of a living literature review for the economics of innovation. We're helping support his work. And then Brian Potter, who runs a really interesting substack called construction physics really trying to get at this question of why is construction productivity fallen? Over, you know, the last 50 years and what can we do about it? So those are both were sort of supporting their work. They're not full time employees. But that's the the main core of the team.
Well, so you know, some of these are familiar names to me. Why did you need a new think tank as opposed to just creating a branch at Niskanen? or somewhere like that, you know...
Yeah, I guess a couple of reasons. One, if you're really trying to, like go in a different direction, or think about your issues in a slightly different way, it's sometimes helpful to just have a fresh, a fresh slate, we wanted to sort of have no preconceived notions or other sorts of baggage that I think inevitably come from older institutions. And we just wanted sort of a fresh start, especially as we're trying to help represent these communities that don't have a lot of current existing, you know, representation in DC, we also wanted to be a bit more experimental on the organizational structure. So I think there's a lot of think tanks that inadvertently or sometimes advertently, Silo their researchers. And so if you're like a top senior fellow at the University, basically, your job is to just sit in your office, pump out white papers. And that's sort of like the the extent of your policy engagement. And you'll have other dedicated staff that do more of the communications or the outreach on the hill. And we're really trying to do, I guess the opposite of that we're trying to be vertically integrated across these three axis have our senior fellows be also very active in the communication of their ideas on Twitter and on the media environment, as well as very actively developing relationships on it on the hill. And with key committee staffers, it's been our experience, that I think that ends up actually being a lot more successful when you can combine that deep expertise around a topic with the ability to communicate it in an active way. And so we wanted to experiment a little bit more with with structures like that and other institutional tweaks, and we thought it was just be easier to start a new institution to do that.
Well, so who, who's going to be opposed to progress and innovation? This seems like a pretty nonpartisan thing. Have you gotten, you know, positive feedback from people in Congress? Or are people are thinking like, this is kind of weird, like, I mean, what's what's what's the reaction been?
Generally the reaction has been very positive. I think that was another reason we wanted to start a new institutions, we did want to be very explicitly nonpartisan. And some of the other institutions the both Alec and I've worked for have been on both either the center left or the center right. And we thought for the set of issues that we really care the most about, and thought we wanted to push the hardest on actually having sort of like an explicitly partisan team wasn't very helpful for pushing the ball forward on those those issues. I think we also are pretty bought into the secret Congress idea that I think Matt Yglesias has popularized the idea that actually if your issues get caught in this sort of polarization vortex, it makes it way harder to actually push the ball meaningfully forward on them. And it's by acting as sort of a nonpartisan, technical actor that's not you know, trying to bring the culture wars into your policy issues. That's when you can have the most success and I think an example of this would be the still on ooing fight over the the Endless Frontier Act, which has now become the United States Innovation Competition Act, but it passed the Senate and a sort of different version of it passed the House. It's the largest increase in science funding in the last 30-40 years. And it passed bipartisanly, even though it wasn't, you know, on the front page of The New York Times, it wasn't getting talked about on Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson.
Or maybe that's why
I think that's exactly why that, yeah, both sides were able to support it. Because they they have almost a different reasons for supporting a large investment in federal science funding. But I think if it had gotten caught up in this polarization machine, it would have been less likely to pass.
I mean, if Trump had, like, just come out and being like, you know, innovation, it's the best you're gonna love it. There's gonna be a Maddow segment about how innovation is I don't know, do you know what I'm saying? It's just like,
Yeah,no, no, it would have been talking about tech bros or something. Yeah. So I'm certainly no, I think it's very actively good. That sort of technology and science issues try to maintain itself is kind of this partisan, or bipartisan and nonpartisan segment. I think that's also useful both for passing things in the moment. And also for building a more durable Coalition on these issues long term, it would be very bad if you know, when Republicans were in office, or vice versa, when Democrats that were in office that like science funding rose and fell with partisan whims, or the structure of how we set up these institutions was very variable, depending on the election cycle. I think having that predictability and having sort of strong support from at least in both the right and the left is important for the long term success of the US innovation engine.
So um, I want to talk a little bit about some details, just like some particular topics. So I had a discussion that I did with Eric Berger at Ars Technica, about space. And, you know, we talked about Elon Musk, and SpaceX and NASA and China and all these topics. And, you know, I think I think, Eric, you know, he has a book, you know, about the early days of SpaceX, our listeners should check it out. But he's, he's pretty pro SpaceX. I think, and I think a lot of us are, um, so let me ask you as this innovation guy, like, how, why did why do you think SpaceX happened? Because it shouldn't have happened.
Yeah, it's interesting. Spaces is an area, we probably like to expand, it's not one of our initial issue areas, but probably something that might be in, you know, bucket for five or six. So I would love to have a more dedicated, I think, space team, because there's a lot of really exciting things happening there. SpaceX has been, I think, an interesting combination of just like the sheer will and determination of Elon to make things happen, where I think a lot of people that failed before, combined with pretty clever, and I guess, forward looking, contracting processes by NASA, I think NASA for a while now has been sort of rethinking what its mission is and how it should think of itself within this larger set of actors in outer space. And I think one of the most important things that they can do in which they they played a little bit of a role in is as market maker. And so I think one of the most helpful things for SpaceX was sort of assuring locking down some of these contracts to refuel the outer space station and bring up supplies and individuals out to the ISS. And that's I had to make, like a deliberate decision to work with both I think the more traditional contractors as well as sort of this upstart, you know, SpaceX, but they did it both in the effort of sort of maintaining competition in the space industry and recognizing that, actually, yeah, if you, you bring in some of these outside actors, you're going to both pressure Boeing and the traditional contractors to keep costs down. And there's a chance that SpaceX could really be, you know, sitting on some pretty fundamental, you know, economic or technological changes. And I think that that's mostly worked out. So yeah, I think, yeah, it's the combination of both Yeah, the sheer determination and and forward looking at technological prowess that Elon obviously has, and he's brought to SpaceX since enormously impressive, combined with I think, sort of a wise understanding from NASA in terms of thinking about what is the proper role for them in the ecosystem? What can they best do? And it's sort of Yeah, as a market maker. I mean, once you have a very large piece of infrastructure in space, and especially if you have humans on living on it, it's like a tangible commitment device, and we will continue to resupply this, this space station for, you know, the next 10 years or whatever. And I think that gave a fair bit of confidence to new entrants in the fields that ended up being very valuable.
Yeah, um, so I, you know, I think I've written about this. I've talked about this before, but so I think I forget what was the dragon that landed summer 2017 Do you remember that? The reusable?
Yeah, I think so.
And I remember, I'm actually just curious like your impression when I saw that and like, honestly, like, I'm not like a close follower of SpaceX, like I support, I support the project. I support you endeavour I support going to Mars. But this is not my thing. But when I watched that, that device land, I actually was remember like, being confused as to whether it was CGI. Like it's like it was it was outside of my like domain of the possible.
It's pretty wild. I mean, both on the like technological and engineering feed about it. I think the other thing, that it's pretty neat about relining specifically, is it to a very to a normal person, it's immediately obvious what are the applications of that, suddenly, it becomes the case that this entire process of launching and then taken back off can be repeatable in a way that doesn't seem when you know, you have to then have like the parachute, space capsule, you know, flowing back to Earth, that that seems like a more one off very expensive process. And re landing is just such a visceral sign that Whoa, the economics of this industry are changing in a very real sense. The other thing I think that's that's cool about maybe the the optics of space, generally, is that it is a very real and literal, pushing out of the frontier, that, you know, a lot of problems in today's political system and our economic system and whatnot, sort of stemmed from maybe like a zero sum mentality, which is, in some sense, representative, the fact that we've discovered most of what there is to discover on the earth, you know, there aren't new continents to to explore new frontiers to be settled in the same way. I mean, maybe we should be settling new underground cities, that's maybe a conversation for another time. But, um, space is a very literal expansion of the frontier in a way that I hope can recapture some of that positive sum thinking and frontier spirit that is helps the US be successful historically.
Yeah, so you mentioned that us and you know, you're based in DC, you're an American. And we've been talking a lot about American scientists, but I know. But, you know, SpaceX and SpaceX International. And we have this, like, you know, I mean, So traditionally, like, let me speak to what I know, in terms of science, you got America, you got some good places in Canada, but hey, Canada is Canada it's 1/10th the size population wise and their, their bacon, like what is that? That's not bacon. But aside from that, you got Europe, Germany does some serious stuff, Max Plank, you got these Institute's that are doing some serious stuff, obviously, Oxford and Cambridge in genomics. Britain - in genomics and genetics, Britain has long punched above its weight so much respect to that, you know, there's a bit there's a bit of stuff in France. And then there's like, you know, random researchers, like, for example, like, yeah, they're the Kamas lab in Barcelona is really good, you know, but in general, we don't talk too much about Spanish science. And you know, to be frank, there's a reason like the best researchers the best... A lot of the best talent, they go to Northern Europe or come to the United States, just because of like, the institutions, the framework, the financing everything. Right. Okay, so you got science there, you got science in Japan, Japan has traditionally been a pretty insular country. I know people that have done postdocs in Japan, but really, like they don't see themselves becoming professors in Japan. You know, and then you got a lot of other countries in the world, but you know, it's just it's not the same, okay? They don't have the resources, they don't have the funding and the culture. And now you have China. So, what is China going to do in terms of innovation, engineering science, like, are we gonna have, are we gonna have a space race? Are we gonna have a biological race? Like, I mean, what is your anticipation? Like, is this gonna change? Because I think one of the issues with America right now is we're complacent. Because yes, like on paper, China, this China that, but it's still not real to us, like all the 20th century institutions are still there. The publication system is, you know, very, very, like 20th century, NSF, NIH, all the institutions are there, and NASA still here. So everything's 20th century, and I'm not sure if we're not really prepared for what and also like, unlike, unlike the USSR, and Soviet Union, which I you know, you don't remember really, but I remember but, uh, you know, China's economically, a monster, USSR really was not.
China's huge I mean by I think it's worth pointing out just in sheer population size, when the US was competing with the USSR, we were like, roughly in the same ballpark in terms of population of the US and the joint USSR. And China is three times our size. And so in like a very real sense, if they only get to a third of our living standards, but have tripled the population, you know, they'll have equivalent GDP. And so in some sense, the the bar for for China to be able to compete with us in a very real sense is much lower than it would have been for the USSR. I mean, population has so many downstream effects in terms of, you know, innovation of younger people that start businesses at higher rates, they tend to create, you know, new scientific discoveries at higher rates. A larger population allows you to create larger agglomeration and, you know, technology clusters and really push for The frontier in various ways. So I think, yeah, the the sheer size of China is probably their their single biggest advantage. There's an interesting factor here, which is sort of immigration and the perceived openness of the innovation ecosystem. You could say, in a very, like rough sense, the United States has the ability to recruit from the entire global population of potential scientists and potential engineers future Einsteins, versus trying to really because they are so much worse at immigration than the United States, comparatively, has the ability to recruit from 1.2 1.3 billion people. So there's a sense in which China is very much betting and doubling down on sort of their their closed innovation ecosystem, which is, you know, mostly tried to recruit Chinese nationals back to China from the United States and other Western liberal countries, really throw tons and tons billions and billions of dollars in research subsidies, that are maybe being a little bit more experimental, more dynamic, I guess, in their institutional ecosystem. But they're, they're not going to be able to match the ability to sort of recruit from the global population in the way the United States says. And actually, there's sort of an interesting dynamic here, where you're increasingly seeing China's realizing maybe this problem for them, which is why they're investing so much in these, you know, big programs like the 1000 talents program, and 1000 foreign talents program, where they are maybe trying to explicitly see if they can recruit talent from from overseas. And there's a lot of Chinese documents, where if you translate them, you know, they talk about, oh, man, the fact that the United States is really shooting themselves in the foot on all these immigration questions, it's like our single biggest advantage if they ever sort of, if the United States ever woke up to this problem, and took immigration seriously as they might, you know, we would be in trouble. And so I think one of the goals for the institute is to have the United States really play into this role as the world's melting pot for the world's top 10. Technical practitioners, engineers, scientists, supply chain managers, be the home for the best and brightest from all around the world that we have been historically, and that we are, in some sense, uniquely suited and capable of being. And I think if we do that, like we really actually don't have that much to fear from China, I think that we'll be able to out compete them.
Yeah, but right now, so let's talk about immigration. You're obviously an open borders, globalist No. I'm just joking. But um, so you, obviously you want more immigration, high skilled immigration value, add, you know, just bring all the human capital to the well bring all the human capital to the Bay Area. I mean, that's basically what you're saying. But no, but um, but seriously, the lot, you know, with the pandemic, and then the Trump administration, we've had a, we've had quite decreased immigration, have we not?
We have Yeah, I think that's all the figures that, you know, were like roughly half of what we would have been from like a pre-pandemic trend in terms of the number of immigrants that would have been coming in over that, you know, time period, which is pretty dramatic reduction. I think it's like, yeah, we're missing roughly 5 million immigrants or, you know, individuals who would have otherwise been contributing to the US workforce that aren't, which is pretty dramatic decline. So I think there are definitely reasons to be concerned, you can say maybe the dual trend of one, the United States is no longer like the huge outlier in terms of a research environment that it used to be like, it's much easier for individuals to imagine contributing to cutting edge science and technological work by just staying at home than it used to be used to be was almost like you got to move to the United States to want to contribute to any of these fields. And now it's much more feasible to do so from, you know, universities that are based all around the world. And to the United States, yeah, it hasn't been quite as welcoming or open as it has been in previous decades. Which is definitely concerning. You could say, if you sort of think about trends, there's a lot of countries like say, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, I would call out specifically that are starting to be proactive, and not just reactive to immigration, they're all trying to very ambitiously sort of proactivly recruit high skilled immigrants to their country. All of them have some version of a startup visa, whereas the United States doesn't really, the UK has this interesting program. They're they're currently in the midst of rolling out called the high potential visa, which basically mean, if you graduated from a top 500 Global University, you'd be able to move to the UK as that you're with that being your only criteria, which is far more like open and ambitious, in some sense, in terms of recruiting talent than the United States has been. So yeah, we're trying to I guess, reverse that trend. And certainly, if we don't reverse it, that would be quite troubling for for the United States. But I do think we just have so much inertia that in some sense, we could maintain that policy for quite a while.
You mean, the policy of lower immigration levels?
Yeah, it's just the United States is so big and we've been the global home for science technology for so while but like, in some sense, we have a lot more room to make errors. We should try not to make errors, but like I don't think it's the case that the United States is doomed because we have you know, a brief period of restriction sm, I think it's totally within our grasp to be able to turn this Around the next 5-10 years and sort of reclaim our our role as the world's R&D labs, I sometimes call it
Yeah, you know, I should, I should have some people talk about immigration on on the podcast at some point cuz I don't know what's going on, um, you know, with the pandemic, like people were not moving. So like, honestly, it's kind of like a stop thinking about it. And, you know, this was a big deal during the Bush administration, there's massive wave of people coming up from Mexico, Mexico's birth rates decline, you know, their surplus working class, you know, it's not what it used to be. And so I think we're looking for the next wave. But, you know, I guess the Democratic Party is, is technically well, not maybe not technically, like, literally like the party, that's very pro immigration right now. And the Republican Party has pivoted away from it, even though traditionally, and kind of, from what I can tell, and here on the down low, they still really, really want economic migrants, like, you know, people that bring innovation that bring capital that are going to be contributing taxes. I mean, you know, it's a business party still, too, right. So, I mean, have you heard anything, like on the hill? I mean, like, Okay, this issue? I mean, if you're a total restrictionist, and you want to pause, like, that's one thing, but probably most people are not. And we obviously have a problem with the system right now. One because like, okay, like, you know, I have a friend from India, and he is a high net worth individual, he probably could actually afford, like one of those business visas, but he doesn't want to like pride. He's like, 10 1011 years or something behind on his h1, B, because he's from India. And, you know, he's paying massive taxes every year. You know, I have to hear about a lot. Okay. But, you know, this seems like a ludicrous system. This seems like a ridiculous system. But you know, with the inertia, they're not going to be able to change it. I know that the Republicans and you know, I have a friend who's immigration restrictionist, but he was basically like, we should just give, we should just like, you know, give a passport, or give a green card to everybody who has a PhD in STEM. You know, like, yeah,
No, I think that's definitely momentum is sort of growing. Amongst elite circles, kind of, for something like this, it's unclear exactly how it might manifest. I mean, a few things that that we've sort of been working on or have been flagging, we think the, the O-1 visa for immigrants of extraordinary ability is, I think, a pretty underrated visa. And sometimes people are scared off. It's called, like the Einstein visa colloquially. But it's very broad in terms of how Congress originally wrote it, it's just meant to be for individuals who have showed extraordinary ability, and it's shown sustained national or international acclaim, I think, is the term, but then they give USCIS very broad authority in terms of how to actually adjudicate that. And it's an uncapped visa pathway that you can potentially renew indefinitely, so long as you're still here doing the extraordinary work that brought you here. But it's already sort of a very discretionary visa. And so so one of the things that we're pushing for is to maybe be like, more explicit, I think there's a lot of people who who could apply for the one, but it sort of scared off by that you frequently have to, you know, submit 500 page long length petitions in terms of applying for this application in the first place. And so if USCIS was slightly more clear in terms of what they meant by extraordinary ability, or how that was going to be defined, or what sorts of things might satisfy the criteria, and then maybe it was also like, you could define extraordinary ability in a number of ways. And I would recommend doing a slightly more open, broad interpretation that would make it clear, we want a broader cross section of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc, to be able to come live and work in the United States. And I think using a program like the O-1, there's actually quite a number of reforms you could make to make that easier. And the other thing is, as we're talking now, it's unclear what's going to happen with the reconciliation bill. But in the reconciliation bill, there's actually a pretty interesting change to green cards. That is sort of in the immigration section, again, unclear whether or not it's going to make it into the final bill as as we're talking now in November. But the basically make it so you have green card recapture, there's about I think, a million green cards that just haven't that were congressionally authorized, but just weren't given out over the last several years, mostly from sort of administrative errors that we could recapture and then actually give out. And the other thing is right now, we can only give out I think, 140,000 employment based green cards a year, that's a congressional cap. And then further, as I'm sure you're aware, there's a 7% per country cap, which ends up meaning that a lot of really talented smart immigrants from both China and India just practically have to wait, you know, decades upon decades upon decades to have a chance at a green card here. And the new legislation would create a way that if you qualify for one of these green card categories, and you've already been on the queue for two years, you can pay an adjustment fee of $5,000 for an employment based green card and then just basically be able to be exempted from those green card caps, which would be a pretty dramatic change really, and I think for the for The positive in terms of making it easier and more predictable for high skilled immigrants considering the United States as a destination. So I think those are those are two pathways. I'm sort of bullish on both one legislative and one executive in which we could I think make pretty meaningful change for a lot of high school immigrants that are considering coming here.
Cool. So one thing that I want to ask you about is, you know, we got this big country here, big, beautiful country, like 330-40 million people, whatever. So, you know, that's a lot of people. It's a lot of different states. We got 50 states, right. But sometimes I see things. So for example, England, they have been doing, like just massive Coronavirus sequencing. That's why like, you know, English variant like 2700, you know, like we have, we have, like, as many we have more variants of them, but we don't know about our variants, right? So, you know, that's been like a little dispiriting for me to see. And then, UK, you know, for the geneticists in the audience sidestepped the biobank. They just, you know, Rudy's recently released 100,000 whole genomes. Like, you know, they're pushing forward. And you know, I'm not like saying, like, you know, Britain's the future, it's like scientific, but I'm just saying, like, if they can do that, what their resources, what are we doing, like? So I see, from my own perspective, a lot of disorganization, or just like the lack of coherency and national vision. And so I mean, cuz we could, look, we got the technology, we got the talent, we could do this. So why don't we do this? What's going on in this country? That's a little different?
Yeah, that's a great question. I admitted that the political dynamics on this are quite puzzling to me. I am pretty. I don't know, I don't have a good theory for why the United States hasn't been passing, you know, substantially huge amounts of pandemic preparation funding. I mean, if you look at like, how did the United States respond, post 911. We consolidated multiple federal departments and to DHS we spent, you know, billions, if not trillions of dollars on new national security, prevention, and yet, facing this post COVID environment, we really have not shown a willingness to invest seriously in fighting future pandemics, which is very weird to me. But I think there's a lot of low hanging fruit to be done here. I mean, one, pushing forward the ball on meta genomic sequencing, which enabled you to actually have a better sense of what pathogens are out there. And what novel pathogens Do we not have a good sense of? I think wastewater surveillance seems like a system that should be very easily scaled up and would be quite actionable. In terms of understanding yet, where are new novel pathogens floating around? And are there ways that we can isolate those early? The other nice thing about I think wastewater surveillance is that people have way less like privacy concerns about their wastewater than they would about, you know, maybe point of care, disease surveillance. So I'm quite bullish on on disease wastewater surveillance as systems that we could really build up in scale, not only in the United States, but all around the world. And then yeah, obviously, all the excitement around mRNA vaccines, I think, is great. mRNA is a lot more flexible than more traditional vaccine based technologies, you can rapidly iterate and scale up in a way that you can't with, you know, Dino viral vector vaccines. They're also cheaper to manufacture once you have sort of the requisite technology and skills. And so I think it'd be more feasible for us to really build out mRNA manufacturing capacity all over the world in a way that we haven't really been able to do for again, yet more traditional vaccine technologies.
Okay, so you got this new think tank, obsessed with innovation? In the last question, like, what are you most excited about right now working on pushing forward? Like, I mean, what's really like at the top of your stack?
Yeah, I mean, right now, I think in the short term, I'm most interested slash, eager, excited about some of these immigration changes that might be on the horizon, depending on what happens in both reconciliation and in the executive sector with the O-1 and visa, I think immigration and human talent is just so ups, it's upstream of all possible innovations. I think so much of technological and scientific development is really human capital driven. And so if we can really, you know, continue to make it easier for the world's top scientists and engineers to be able to come here, I think that's the single best thing we could do to really push for the ball. It's, I think, positive in a wide array of circumstances, and also increases the likelihood that future technologies continue to be developed in a institutional environment that is compatible with, you know, liberal democracy and liberal values that I also care deeply about.
Okay, so but you think that this is feasible, you're optimistic but because I you know, I don't know much about you know, I'm just a simple man. I don't know much about DC politics, like the Republican Party has pivoted in a much more immigration skeptical direction over the last half decade. Yeah,
I'm, I guess you could say I'm optimistic about some of these like small loophole solutions to the Executive I'm pretty pessimistic about the border situation. I think the border is sort of where maybe immigration polarization is at its highest. I think these images or perceived lack of control with the situation on the border is going to lead to like pretty harsh lockdowns or restrictions in there. That would be like my default political assumption over the next several years. But I think that sort of almost a separate track again, like you could say immigration at the border has been polarized it's gotten caught in this you know, big polarized tug of war battle between liberals and conservatives, but I think some of these smaller executive programs like the O-1 I think could potentially escape that that polarization for talks vortex and you can actually do useful things with them.
Okay, okay. All right. Um, so yeah, it was great talking to you, Caleb, and can you just like a name? Drop your, your think tank again?
For sure. Yeah. So the Institute for Progress. The web domain should be progress dot Institute. You can follow the Institute on Twitter @ ISP. Or you can follow me @ Caleb Watney and my co founder at @ Alec Stapp.
All right. Yeah, I mean, everyone loves progress, man, everyone loves progress. So I think the good brand thing, it's gonna Yeah, it's gonna be it's gonna be a fun ride. I'm excited to see what you what you guys are doing. Like I said, I do enjoy following both you and Alec. You know, they're like good Twitter feeds. You know, it's not a it's not all just like posturing and performance, like you guys are engaging with substance. There's a lot of options to deal with out there. There's a lot of possibilities. There's a lot of science, there's a lot of engineering, there's a lot of technology, like you know, we live in a world of riches and bounties. And sometimes we need to reflect on that. When we get you know, my friend Sama Borja, he has this idea of social technology. I'm not sure about our social technology right now, you may be a little bit more optimistic about some things, but we definitely like the other type of technology. You know, physical , you know...
I think that's right
I would I would emphasize, though that like it is of critical importance that the United States figure out how to develop better institutions because our current institutions are so sclerotic, they prove themselves totally inept and incapable of responding to a threat like the Coronavirus insofar as this pandemic was like a dress rehearsal for much worse potential pandemics. We really failed the dress rehearsal. My main hope is that maybe this as an example can sort of catalyze and we can then push for the energy to actually build up the kind of infrastructure and system we really need to fight these future threats.
Let's hope man All right, it's been great talking to you and I will see you online
yeah, great chatting thanks for having me.
Is this podcast for kids?