Boutique Science

Science keeps getting bigger- more researchers, more funding, and of course more publications. Scientific progress is much harder to measure, but there are good arguments that it’s roughly flat over time. This implies that productivity per researcher is plummeting.


There’s been a lively debate about what drives this falling productivity- is it that the easy discoveries got made first, leaving only harder ones for today’s scientists? Or is something else tanking scientific productivity, like the bureaucratic way we organize scientific research today?

A recent paper, “Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science“, suggests that the growth in the number of researchers and publications could itself be part of the problem. Comparing scientific fields over time, they find that:

When the number of papers published per year in a scientific field grows large, citations flow disproportionately to already well-cited papers; the list of most-cited papers ossifies; new papers are unlikely to ever become highly cited, and when they do, it is not through a gradual, cumulative process of attention gathering; and newly published papers become unlikely to disrupt existing work. These findings suggest that the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.

What is driving this? They argue:

First, when many papers are published within a short period of time, scholars are forced to resort to heuristics to make continued sense of the field. Rather than encountering and considering intriguing new ideas each on their own merits, cognitively overloaded reviewers and readers process new work only in relationship to existing exemplars. A novel idea that does not fit within extant schemas will be less likely to be published, read, or cited. Faced with this dynamic, authors are pushed to frame their work firmly in relationship to well-known papers, which serve as “intellectual badges” identifying how the new work is to be understood, and discouraged from working on too-novel ideas that cannot be easily related to existing canon. The probabilities of a breakthrough novel idea being produced, published, and widely read all decline, and indeed, the publication of each new paper adds disproportionately to the citations for the already most-cited papers.

Second, if the arrival rate of new ideas is too fast, competition among new ideas may prevent any of the new ideas from becoming known and accepted field wide.

Supposing they are correct, it’s not totally clear what to do. At the biggest level we could fund fewer researchers in large fields, or push more fields to be like economics, where the quality of each researcher’s publications is valued much more than the quantity. But what can an individual researcher do differently? One idea is “boutique science” or “hipster science”, trying to find the smallest or newest field you could reasonably attach yourself to.

Another idea is that the role of generalists and synthesizers is becoming more valuable, as Tyler Cowen often says and David Esptein applies to science in his book Range. When papers are coming out faster than anyone can read, we need more people to sift through them and explain which few are actually important and which are forgettable or wrong. There are lots of ways to do this- review articles, meta-analysis, replication at scale, and of course blogs. But the junk pile is going to keep growing, so we’ll need new and better ways of finding the hidden gems.

Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

I’ve never been great at gifts, and don’t have much in the way of specific ideas now. But I’ve been thinking about what the macroeconomic environment means for gift-giving.

First, as you’ve probably heard by now from us or elsewhere, if you want to get any physical gift I’d order it now, since shipping is a mess and prices are only going up. I’d especially recommend this for complex electronics that could become hard to find- its part of why I got my wife an iPad for her birthday this summer. Foreign food and drink that can be stockpiled is always a good idea, but perhaps especially now; think wine, Scotch, or Beirao liqueur (a Portuguese drink that was my favorite discovery this year). Wine and liquor make good stores of value in an time of inflation.

Alternatively, you could avoid the scarcity of physical goods by turning to the digital realm. If your economistic heart yearns to give cash, consider giving some your favorite stock or cryptocurrency instead- its both more personalized and less subject to inflation. Or if you think you can judge the recipient’s taste well enough, subscribe them to one of your favorite Substacks or podcasts. My recommendations:

Unsupervised Learning, Razib Khan– Genomics and History

The Diff, Byrne Hobart– Finance and Strategy

Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander– Rationality, Psychiatry, Everything

The Readers Karamazov– Funny podcast on literature and philosophy (now seems entirely free though)

Or if you really have money to burn, go for the Bloomberg subscription. I always run out of free reads on the Tyler Cowen articles and so can’t read Matt Levine, even though he has the magic ability to teach you finance while making you laugh. But the subscription is expensive and Mike Bloomberg doesn’t need the money, while the Substacks are relatively cheap and enable talented writers to spend a lot more time writing instead of needing to focus on a real job.

Tyler Cowen, Talent Curator

Everyone else at EWED has been too classy (or earnest?) to post it, since it would implicitly be bragging.

But I’m home with a quarantined kid today and need the win. So here is biotech founder Tony Kulesa‘s article on how Tyler Cowen is the Best Curator of Talent in the World.


Tyler has identified talent either earlier than or missed by top undergraduate programs, the best biotech startups, and the best biotech investors, all without any insider knowledge of biotech. In comparison, Forbes 30U30, MIT Tech Review TR35, or Stat Wunderkind, and other industry awards that highlight talent are lagging indicators of success. It’s hard to find an awardee of these programs that was not already widely recognized for their achievements among insiders in their field. The winners of Emergent Ventures are truly emergent. 

What explains Tyler’s ability to do this?

1. Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest

2. Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores. 

3. Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics. 

4. Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.

This seems right as far as it goes, and there is more depth in the article, but there has to be more to the story than we can see from the outside. Luckily Tyler has said he is writing a book on identifying talent.