Here are some projects I’d like to see funded, some through my own ventures, or others through alternative mechanisms. On these issues, the right person could have an enormous impact, whether through the research side or directly coming up with actionable ideas, including of course creating and building companies.
More studies of super-effective people. Either individually or collectively. If you take the outliers in any domain, what should our intuitions be for understanding the underlying processes determining how many people could have ended up in those positions? How many people had the right genes but had the wrong upbringing? How many people had the right genes and the right upbringing but the wrong luck, or perhaps society failed them in some other manner? The answers to these questions have significant policy implications.
A comprehensive analysis and critique of the NIH and NSF. The US funds more science research than any other country — about $35 billion per year on the NIH and $8 billion per year on the NSF. How exactly do these institutions work? How have they changed over time and have these changes been for good or bad? Based on what we now know, how might we better structure the NIH and NSF? What experiments should we run or what kind of studies should we perform?
Why is life expectancy so long in Hong Kong? Life expectancy in Hong Kong is 84.23 years, more than five years longer than the US and the highest in the world. Hong Kong is not that wealthy (median household income is $38,000 USD); it’s somewhat polluted; people don’t obviously eat what seems like a healthy diet; and they don’t seem to exercise a great deal. What should we learn from this?
Bloomberg Terminal for everything. This might be a nonprofit, a company, or a government project. To state the obvious, many analyses hinge on having the right data. If you’re in finance, getting the right data is often easy: just pull it up on your Bloomberg terminal. But there is no practical way to ask “what most correlates with life expectancy in Hong Kong?” (See above on that topic.) Figure out a way to build a growing corpus of structured data across the broadest variety of domains.
A comprehensive guide to the American healthcare system. The American healthcare system is by far the world’s biggest and also by a considerable margin the world’s most influential. Yet there is no comprehensive, dispassionate, and analytical disaggregation of how it all works. Who are the actors and what are their incentives? To the degree that the relationships between different entities are in equilibrium, what are the forces ensuring they stay there? What is the Sankey diagram of fund flows within the U.S. healthcare system?
Better answers for how to quantify worker productivity. In most knowledge industries, companies have nothing better than highly subjective measures (i.e., supervisors’ assessments) of worker productivity. In theory, it seems significant improvements should be possible. In the short term, is it possible to measure the productivity or efficacy of individual managers, software engineers, educators, scientists? How about teams, and what size of team? And can we do so without creating Goodhart’s Law problems?
What should Widodo do? Indonesia is a large, populous middle-income country. It faces no major near-term security threats. It has a small manufacturing base and no major non-commodity export sectors. What is the best non-bureaucratic 10 page economic development briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for Indonesia’s president? For Indonesia, substitute Philippines, Chile, or Morocco.
A comparative study of foundations and their efficacy. Philanthropic foundations are behind a lot of important work. But how does a foundation decide what it wants and how the resulting grants should be structured? How effective are the programs of that foundation? In practice, how have its institutional mechanisms evolved? Imagine some kind of resource that answered these questions for the major American foundations.
Institutional critiques. More broadly, there is no discipline of institutional criticism. There is a very rich literature of policy criticism in economics, journalism, and non-fiction books. There is also a rich literature of “corporate criticism”: there are thousands of articles about how Facebook (budget: $20 billion) works and how it might be good or bad. But there is relatively little analysis of the most important institutions in our society: government departments. How is the Department of Agriculture (budget: $150 billion) organized and how effective or not is it? How about the Department of Energy (budget: $32 billion)? And why are not those questions paramount in the minds of policymakers?
Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?
Regeneration at the government layer. Herbert Kaufman (unsurprisingly) concludes in an empirical study that government organizations don’t die. While we might all agree that this is a problem, actionable solutions are in short supply. What can or should we do about this?
IQ paradox. Ron Unz points out that intergenerational variation of IQ may be much higher than is often assumed, citing Ireland and Croatia as examples. For instance, not long ago Ireland had sub-par measured IQ and now that figure is much higher, following growth and prosperity. The policy implications of IQ disparities across nations may therefore be different to what might otherwise obviously follow: perhaps environment matters much more than is assumed. If so, what should we be doing more or less of?
Credible plans for new top-tier universities. 7 of the best 25 universities in the world (Times ranking) were started in the US between 1861 and 1891 by ambitious reformers. It’s probably harder in many ways to start an impactful new university today… but it’s likely not impossible and the returns to doing so successfully might be very high. What might be a good plan? Why have so few of these plans come to fruition?
Summaries of the state of knowledge in different fields. As a general matter, a lot of oral knowledge in the world is still not readily available, and reflection on this fact might lead one in many interesting directions. One obvious application is helping people more readily understand the present state of affairs in different domains. If I want to know “how we’re doing” in, say, antiviral drug development, I could spend a few hours hunting for top researchers, email a few, and perhaps get on calls to obtain their candid assessments. Are we making good progress? What are the most important open problems? What’s holding things back? And so on. How can we make all of this knowledge publicly available across all fields?
Mechanisms for better matching. One of the single interventions that could do the most to improve global welfare would be to improve the efficiency of the partner/marriage matching ecosystem. Online dating demonstrates that significant change (and maybe even improvement?) is possible, with some figures suggesting that up to two thirds of relationships in the US may now be initiated through online dating services. Accomplished people often seem to struggle with this challenge. Good solutions would be important.
What should Durkan do? Jenny Durkan is the current mayor of Seattle. As cities become more important loci of economic activity in the world, the importance of effective city governance will increase. As with the Widodo challenge, what is the best 10 page briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for her? What about Baltimore and St. Louis?