Friday, June 30, 2017

Technical vs Economic Bottlenecks

What were the major barriers faced by the Manhattan project?

I would point to two broad classes of problems. The first set are economic challenges: obtaining funding, resources, people with specialized knowledge, coordinating work, and so forth. The second set are technical challenges: what materials to use, the mechanism of the bomb, all the technical issues required to produce a blueprint. Both of these kinds of problems had to be solved in order for the Manhattan project to succeed.

In response to my post on the scientific bottleneck, a few people mentioned various research/commentary on bottlenecks to scientific progress. Different people linked me to very different works with very different purposes, but they shared a common theme: the limiting factors to scientific progress boil down to getting knowledge from the people who have it to the people who need it.

I totally agree with that idea. So why am I writing a series of posts on a “scientific bottleneck” which does not seem particularly related to this problem?

Just like the Manhattan project, scientific progress requires overcoming both economic and technical challenges. I argued in my previous post that the theory of adaptive systems (or lack thereof) is the limiting technical challenge across multiple fields currently on the scientific frontier. But I didn’t address economic challenges in that post at all.

I’m focused on technical challenges mainly because the major economic bottlenecks to scientific progress are exactly the same as the major economic bottlenecks in any other industry: coordination problems. In the linked post, I claimed that coordination problems are the primary bottleneck in nearly every industry today. As a result, if you want to add lots of value to your company, the natural starting point is to look for coordination problems. In particular:
  • Is there information which some people have and other people need?
  • Are there communication difficulties?
  • Are different specialized groups supporting each other as needed?

This piece is one example account of scientific bottlenecks. Its thesis:
“Behavioral science researchers are now recognizing that it is impossible to find and incorporate all related disciplinary knowledge. … There are simply too many overlapping research areas across disciplines for any single person to integrate or utilize.”
And later:
“a conservative evaluation found 70 differently named self-efficacy constructs, and only eight of these construct names were used more than once.”
One more:
“when the independent variables of most of these disciplines are examined, there is enormous overlap.”

Sound familiar? I’m cherry-picking quotes to make a point, but these are pretty representative of the essay. The major economic bottlenecks to scientific progress are:
  • Getting information from people who have it to people who need it.
  • Communication difficulties, especially different/obscure terminology.
  • Bridging the gap between groups with different specializations.

If you’re a scientist looking for career advice, this is it: look for coordination problems.

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