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How Well Are We Sciencing?

Are advances in science slowing down? This was the topic of debate when Patrick Collison, CEO and founder of Stripe, and Lant Pritchett, Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, met at the JFK Moonshot event in Trinity College recently. Or, to put it another way, how well are we sciencing?

Photo Credit – Ellen Gunning 

It’s a really interesting question. We hear, see and read, all the time, about the speed of advance of commerce, science, technology etc. We all know that, in the past 50 years, there have been more inventions and more advances than in the previous 100.

We are all familiar with the fact that the invention of the first printing press by Gutenberg revolutionised not only the dissemination of information, but opened the door to accurate reporting and educating the masses to read.

We all ’know’ that the computer technology which took man to the moon in 1969 has been surpassed by the technology contained in your mobile phone. And everyone is aware that, each day, the world is flooded with new advances across multiple industries, especially technology and medicine.

Patrick Collison shone a new light on progress in this debate. His argument was that we have, probably, 100 times more scientists now that we had in the 1960s. We probably have 100 times more in terms of funds invested in scientific research. And its possible that we have 100 times the volume of outputs if you measure academic papers or registered patents, for example.

Per Person Productivity

However, he looked at things differently. He looked at ‘per person’ productivity and said that it is in decline, and then he and Lant Pritchett debated why that might be. Patrick wondered about the role of culture in productivity while Lant said that he, metaphorically, takes out a gun when he hears the word ‘culture.’ However, they might both have been discussing the same concept but using different words and coming at it from a different starting point!!

They didn’t reach a conclusion – and I don’t know the answer. But I was left with two questions. In an era where we have access to more information than ever before, and have a multitude of labour saving and AI-enhanced devices to help us live our ‘best lives’, why are we are all under pressure for time? And why does that pressure make us less productive than previous generations?

The discussion, titled “JFK Moonshot: reimagining Human Potential and Progress” was held in the Dargan theatre, Trinity College, Dublin on 29 June 2023.

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