When Ben Reinhardt was an undergrad at Caltech, he often passed a mural painted on the back of a building on campus. It included a quote from Theodore von Kármán, a scientist and engineer who served as the first director of JPL: “Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been.” Since his days as an undergrad, Reinhardt’s been trying to build the world as it could be, one filled with the imaginings of science fiction novels like Ada Palmer’s Terra
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But a recent paper published in Nature described a decline in scientific progress over the last few decades. It’s a trend that many have been speaking out about for years, among them Reinhardt and a cohort of individuals who study ‘the science of science’, which some have coined metascience.
Reinhardt went on to get his PhD with a particular desire: to build spaceships. But he found that academia wasn’t quite the right venue for making progress, so he joined a startup working on augmented reality. That wasn’t quite right either. He also tried helping other people start companies through a VC firm. Could it be that the research setting he was seeking, a place that could do big, innovative projects, didn’t exist?
Reinhardt started studying innovation systems, collecting background on the history of how basic and applied science has been funded, managed and carried out from pioneers like Vannevar Bush and Don Braben. It was through this deep dive that an idea emerged for a new type of innovation system; a modified version of the US government’s DARPA program, one that is privately funded by investor-philanthropists.
What’s so special about DARPA, which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency? Some consider it “one of the most secretly successful government organizations in US history.” It incorporates flavors of industry and academic research, and program managers with big budgets have been able to take huge risks with major payoffs in the form of science and technology advances, such as drones and GPS.
“What’s becoming clear is that we need more institutional experimentation. We need to tinker with the broader arrangement of how to do science. Science is working great for the people that it is working great for. Unfortunately that’s not everyone. It’s possible we could be getting better results and the only way to know that is to try different things,” shared David Lang, executive director of the Experiment Foundation.
Experiment Foundation grew out of Experiment.com, one of the first crowdfunding platforms for science. The foundation puts out grants and empowers scientists to seek funding through their Science Angels program, which finances projects such as Mapping the Humpback Whale Genome.
Reinhardt isn’t the only one with plans to experiment with new research structures in an attempt to reignite progress. Convergent Research is another group dedicated to launching focused research organizations or FROs; the idea here is to take on specific scientific or technological grand challenges “that cannot be efficiently addressed by the existing organizational structures of academia, industry, or government.”
Private fast grants proved a worthy endeavor during the pandemic when philanthropists like Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen felt the government grant system was moving too slowly. Their fast grant program doled out money in just 48 hours, and contributed to the study of saliva-based COVID-19 tests, drug repurposing, understanding differential outcomes of COVID-19 infection and more. The program was a great enough success that the organizers have gone on to found the Arc Institute, an independent but collaborative institute focused on how research can be accelerated.
Some of the other new scientific institutions experimenting with shaking up the traditional structure of research include Arcadia Institute, based in the Bay Area, which is dedicated to a translational program that, “will provide a unique combination of funding, support, and access to accelerate new product development.”
Alexey Guzey is another leader in this space; he recognized a gap in opportunities for young scientists and initiated New Science, which plans to finance entire labs outside of academia, and turn “the process of doing science into an experiment itself.” For a better overview of all the new types of research organizations, check out Sam Arbesman’s The Overedge Catalog.
Reinhardt’s vision for a private DARPA (laid out in the 278 page whitepaper) begins with the simple call to action, “How can we enable more science fiction to become reality?” The document attracted the attention of investors. Today, they announced the launch of Speculative Technologies with initial backing from Schmidt Futures, Patrick Collison, Protocol Labs, the Sloan Foundation. The board for the non-profit includes Kanjun Qiu, founder of Generally Intelligent, an AI research company, and Adam Marblestone, founder and CEO of Convergent Research.
The US Government isn’t sitting idly either – they recently launched Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health or ARPA-H with the goal of speeding the development of human health research. They’re now hiring program managers to oversee the program’s $2.5 billion budget, which President Joe Biden shared during his State of the Union address. ARPA-H will initially focus on cancer and other diseases. The program is headed up by Renee Wegrzyn, who has extensive experience at DARPA and also served as VP and Head of Innovation at Ginkgo Bioworks, a biofoundry company. Wegrzyn will be speaking at the upcoming SynBioBeta Conference in May.
Nadia Asparouhova, an independent researcher and author of Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, recently wrote about experiments in funding and philanthropy like Speculative Technologies. She aptly summarized, “While progress is encouraging so far, early stage funders are not a panacea for all of science funding’s problems. Grant sizes are still small (typically <$1 million), and the long-term impact of these programs is still unknown. Further work is needed to attract more funders and capital; to increase awareness of these opportunities among early-career scientists; and to demonstrate to federal government agencies what’s working well and identify what can be adapted for larger-scale programs.”
The consensus among the metascience community is that it’s time to start experimenting with the way we do science; to break the mold of academia and industry, to gas the miracle machine that is our research ecosystem. Let’s hope some of these experiments are successful.
Thank you to Jocelynn Pearl for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta and some of the companiesI write about (including Ginkgo Bioworks) are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.