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Illustrated portrait of Heidi Williams Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Heidi Williams is steering the science of innovation toward progress

The economist aims to kickstart the slumping rate of progress by reforming the science of science.

Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

From afar, scientific innovation may look like something that just happens. Mix inquisitive humans with research grants, and you get an endless stream of innovation. To some degree, maybe. But there’s nothing inevitable about the rate of scientific progress, which can ebb and flow depending on the institutions humans build around it.

Looking at the recent landscape of scientific progress, two observations stick out. First, decades of institutional proliferation have produced a thicket of regulatory oversight — elsewhere called a “vetocracy” — that is increasingly blocking the very progress it was made to support. Second, the overall rate of scientific progress seems to be slowing down. That isn’t necessarily a problem — the more knowledge we acquire, the more research and development may be needed to maintain the rate of innovation.

But given the outsize potential technology has to spur everything from economic growth to more democratic modes of collective governance, anything we can do to speed the process up may pay serious dividends.

Heidi Williams, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, is at the forefront of a growing movement aiming to kickstart the slumping rate of progress by reforming the science of science. Whether under the banner of progress studies, metascience, or the economics of innovation, the goal is to scrutinize the logistics of how science gets done to smooth the way for innovations to go from idea to implementation.

In June 2022, Williams joined the Institute for Progress think tank as director of science policy to develop a metascience policy agenda. She’s written on why we should launch a biomedical innovation fund, how to build a better National Institutes of Health (NIH), and how doing away with funding delays can speed up science. If these sound a little wonky, that’s the point. Improving logistics doesn’t usually make for the best headlines, career accelerators, or grant proposals, which makes the infrastructure that produces science easy to neglect.

“New scientific discoveries are the basis of long-term economic growth and social progress,” Williams writes on her website. “The simple insight that incentives may affect which scientific discoveries are made as well as which discoveries successfully develop and diffuse into technologies with real-world impact opens the possibility that the design of public policies can have important effects on innovation, economic growth, and social progress.”

In November 2022, Williams and economist Paul Niehaus launched the Science for Progress Initiative at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Building on J-PAL’s impressive track record since its founding in 2003, the initiative works with organizations that both fund and design new approaches to science policy that seek out the most effective methods.

But reforming institutions takes time. Complementing her more patient work, Williams co-leads a fast grants program in collaboration with the Digital Harbor Foundation. While the globe is strewn with scientific talent, the opportunities and resources to develop it are unevenly distributed. Fast grants aim to “send more individuals from more communities to the frontiers of science and technology” by cutting a grant process that ordinarily takes up to 20 months down to 14 days.

“Quick funding for promising projects, along with the ability to course-correct, could accelerate scientific progress and generate enormous benefits for society,” Williams wrote in an August opinion piece for the Washington Post.

Of course, it’s possible that fast grants may turn out to be an ineffective idea. Or that a biomedical innovation fund won’t actually spur new discoveries. The idea behind metascience reform is not any particular proposal. It’s about cultivating both a spirit and an institutional landscape that fosters experimentation, rigorously analyzes the results, and updates methods based on new evidence. In other words, turning the cherished methods of science upon science itself.

“Science is a key driver of economic growth and social progress. If science can be accelerated,” Williams writes, “so can growth.”

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