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Illustrated portraits of Alec Stapp and Caleb Watney Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Alec Stapp and Caleb Watney have a plan for national progress

The co-founders and co-CEOs of the Institute for Progress want to kick-start America’s innovation engine.

Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

Sometime in the 1970s, the US lost the future. Productivity growth in the decades since has been in decline. Building things has gotten harder and harder and more and more expensive. Real scientific progress has stagnated, as has the length of our lives. We’re even flying slower than we did in the days when the supersonic Concorde could cross the Atlantic Ocean in three and a half hours.

Alec Stapp and Caleb Watney want to bring the US back to the future it should have had. As co-CEOs of the Institute for Progress, a DC-based think tank they co-founded in 2022, Stapp and Watney have emerged as leading voices for a small but growing contingent of thinkers who want to kick-start scientific, technological, and industrial progress. In a political world that seems largely focused on what it can’t do, on saying no, Stapp and Watney are trying to build a coalition that can say yes to a bigger, faster, and more innovative America.

That agenda translates to rigorous research about the benefits of faster, more aggressive progress and, perhaps even more importantly, the drawbacks of the status quo. As Stapp and Watney put it in an essay launching the institute: “Over the last 50 years, we’ve increased the number of veto points at nearly every governmental level, failed to invest in state capacity, and raised the stakes of the debate through polarization.” No one set out to create roadblocks to progress, but the result has been an America that is poorer than it should be, that is unprepared for the massive buildup of new energy infrastructure that will be needed to fight climate change, and that is turning away foreign talent that could contribute the ideas and create the companies to ensure a far better future for the country.

Stapp and Watney’s work isn’t just about creating that better future, but taking active steps to prevent what could be a much worse one — specifically, the threat of another terrible pandemic. At the Institute for Progress, they have issued call after call for the US to learn the lessons of Covid-19, to double down on what worked — like the prototyping of mRNA vaccines — and fixing what didn’t, like the delayed rollout of rapid tests. They know we are as vulnerable to a pandemic as we were in December 2019, before the first Covid cases in Wuhan, but they also know that vulnerability is a choice.

If nothing else, that is the overriding lesson Stapp and Watney want us to learn from the institute’s work. We don’t have to accept the status quo we have been living with. We don’t have to be afraid of the new. We can take proactive steps to harness technology to protect ourselves against the catastrophic threats we know are lying in wait and to build a country that is stronger, richer, and simply works better than the one we have. We may have lost track of the future, but it’s still out there, waiting for us to find it again.

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