More on Progress Studies

The idea of progress (Ngram Viewer)

In a working paper shared a couple of weeks ago, Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood continue with their effort to understand scientific progress, and more specifically whether the rate of scientific progress is slowing down. I don’t think there are significant new insights, but it is good to see a first attempt to put together a lot of different (recent) approaches and data together.

In summary:

A wide variety of “per capita” measures do indeed suggest that various metrics for growth, progress and productivity are slowing down.

there is good and also wide-ranging evidence that the rate of scientific progress has indeed slowed down, In the disparate and partially independent areas of productivity growth, total factor productivity, GDP growth, patent measures, researcher productivity, crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law we have found support for this claim.

We should not be especially optimistic about the productivity slowdown.

There is some lag between scientific progress and practical outputs, and with science at less than its maximum dynamic state, one might not expect future productivity to fare so well either. Under one more specific interpretation of the data, a new General Purpose Technology might be required to kickstart economic growth once again.

On the other side of that coin, a no less strong variety of metrics show that measures of total, aggregate progress are usually doing quite well.

When we look at the numbers, the growth in aggregate magnitudes is far more encouraging. The world supports more people than before, a given innovation is enjoyed by more people than before, and aggregate wealth is on the rise. Overall, aggregate rates for global economic growth have been robust. Science is much bigger and better than in the past,

So the final answer to the progress question likely depends on how we weight per capita rates of progress vs. measures of total progress in the aggregate.

i.e. progress lies in the eye of the beholder, or always look on the bright side [of progress].

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