My Conversation with Nicholas Bloom
Excellent and interesting throughout, here is the transcript, video, and audio. Here is part of the summary:
He joined Tyler for a conversation about which areas of science are making progress, the factors that have made research more expensive, why government should invest more in R&D, how lean management transformed manufacturing, how India’s congested legal system inhibits economic development, the effects of technology on Scottish football hooliganism, why firms thrive in China, how weak legal systems incentivize nepotism, why he’s not worried about the effects of remote work on American productivity (in the short-term), the drawbacks of elite graduate programs, how his first “academic love” shapes his work today, the benefits of working with co-authors, why he prefers periodicals and podcasts to reading books, and more.
Here is an excerpt:
COWEN: If I understand your estimates correctly, efficacy per researcher, as you measure it, is falling by about 5 percent a year [paper here]. That seems phenomenally high. What’s the mechanism that could account for such a rapid decline?
BLOOM: The big picture — just to make sure everyone’s on the same page — is, if you look in the US, productivity growth . . . In fact, I could go back a lot further. It’s interesting — you go much further, and you think of European and North American history. In the UK that has better data, there was very, very little productivity growth until the Industrial Revolution. Literally, from the time the Romans left in whatever, roughly 100 AD, until 1750, technological progress was very slow.
Sure, the British were more advanced at that point, but not dramatically. The estimates were like 0.1 percent a year, so very low. Then the Industrial Revolution starts, and it starts to speed up and speed up and speed up. And technological progress, in terms of productivity growth, peaks in the 1950s at something like 3 to 4 percent a year, and then it’s been falling ever since.
Then you ask that rate of fall — it’s 5 percent, roughly. It would have fallen if we held inputs constant. The one thing that’s been offsetting that fall in the rate of progress is we’ve put more and more resources into it. Again, if you think of the US, the number of research universities has exploded, the number of firms having research labs.
Thomas Edison, for example, was the first lab about 100 years ago, but post–World War II, most large American companies have been pushing huge amounts of cash into R&D. But despite all of that increase in inputs, actually, productivity growth has been slowing over the last 50 years. That’s the sense in which it’s harder and harder to find new ideas. We’re putting more inputs into labs, but actually productivity growth is falling.
COWEN: Let’s say paperwork for researchers is increasing, bureaucratization is increasing. How do we get that to be negative 5 percent a year as an effect? Is it that we’re throwing kryptonite at our top people? Your productivity is not declining 5 percent a year, or is it? COVID aside.
BLOOM: COVID aside. Yeah, it’s hard to tell your own productivity. Oddly enough, I always feel like, “Ah, you know, the stuff that I did before was better research ideas.” And then something comes along. I’d say personally, it’s very stochastic. I find it very hard to predict it. Increasingly, it comes from working with basically great, and often younger, coauthors.
Why is it happening at the aggregate level? I think there are three reasons going on. One is actually come back to Ben Jones, who had an important paper, which is called, I believe, “[Death of the] Renaissance Man.” This came out 15 years ago or something. The idea was, it takes longer and longer for us to train.
Just in economics — when I first started in economics, it was standard to do a four-year PhD. It’s now a six-year PhD, plus many of the PhD students have done a pre-doc, so they’ve done an extra two years. We’re taking three or four years longer just to get to the research frontier. There’s so much more knowledge before us, it just takes longer to train up. That’s one story.
A second story I’ve heard is, research is getting more complicated. I remember I sat down with a former CEO of SRI, Stanford Research Institute, which is a big research lab out here that’s done many things. For example, Siri came out of SRI. He said, “Increasingly it’s interdisciplinary teams now.”
It used to be you’d have one or two scientists could come up with great ideas. Now, you’re having to combine a couple. I can’t remember if he said for Siri, but he said there are three or four different research groups in SRI that were being pulled together to do that. That of course makes it more expensive. And when you think of biogenetics, combining biology and genetics, or bioengineering, there’s many more cross-field areas.
Then finally, as you say, I suspect regulation costs, various other factors are making it harder to undertake research. A lot of that’s probably good. I’d have to look at individual regulations. Health and safety, for example, is probably a good idea, but in the same way, that is almost certainly making it more expensive to run labs…
COWEN: What if I argued none of those are the central factors because, if those were true as the central factors, you would expect the wages of scientists, especially in the private sector, to be declining, say by 5 percent a year. But they’re not declining. They’re mostly going up.
Doesn’t the explanation have to be that scientific efforts used to be devoted to public goods much more, and now they’re being devoted to private goods? That’s the only explanation that’s consistent with rising wages for science but a declining social output from her research, her scientific productivity.
COWEN: What exactly is the value of management consultants? Because to many outsiders, it appears absurd that these not-so-well-trained young people come in. They tell companies what to do. Sometimes it’s even called fraudulent if they command high returns. How does this work? What’s the value added?