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Cross-posted from the High Impact Engineers Resource Portal. You can view the most up-to-date version on the Portal.


Progress studies is an interdisciplinary field focused on understanding and enhancing societal progress, investigating technological innovation, economic development, scientific discovery, cultural and social factors, innovation ecosystems, and historical precedents. It aims to identify the drivers of progress and formulate strategies to optimise them in response to concerns about potential slowdowns in technological and societal advancements. Scholars in progress studies engage in discussions around the concept of "accelerating progress" and explore the roles of education, public policy, research and development, and collaborative efforts among various entities in fostering positive societal advancements.

Engineers can use their knowledge and experience in how innovative technologies get developed and implemented to contribute to the literature on progress studies. Engineers can also use their technical expertise to influence policy to stimulate innovation by providing feedback on policy papers or by working in policy.


The content of this article is largely based on the Patrick and Cowen article in The Atlantic, supplemented with resources from Our World in Data and Roots of Progress. As progress studies is still an emerging field of study that combines knowledge from many different disciplines, there are likely things we have missed. As a result, we feel less confident in the recommendations in this article, and we are very open to feedback.

Photo by Logan Moreno Gutierrez on Unsplash

What is Progress Studies?

As Our World in Data says,

The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.

There are tens of thousands of children dying every day. This is truly awful. However, historians estimate that approximately half of all children in the past did not survive until the end of puberty. This grim reality was pervasive worldwide, only significantly improving in the 19th century, just a few generations ago. This improvement can be attributed to an increased understanding and use of medicine, better housing and nutrition, economic development, as well as just recognising “infant mortality” as a socio-medical problem. This goes to show that the world is much better, as a result of human actions.

As engineers, we are familiar with many examples of current technological progress, from nuclear fusion to wearable tech for people with diabetes to direct air capture to tackle climate change. These technologies aim to solve problems and make people’s quality of life better in the future. However, progress is hard – there’s a reason why Edison is famous for saying “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”!

We are still in need of much progress. People still die from both preventable diseases and diseases we haven’t cured yet; we haven’t yet learnt to predict and mitigate natural disasters; we still haven’t solved climate change; many people around the world are still unable to live as comfortably as the average American. There are so many large and small opportunities for improvement: Progress Studies is an intellectual movement that aims to understand why progress happens and how to make it happen faster.

Academics such as economist Tyler Cowen (author of The Great Stagnation) and philosopher Will MacAskill (author of What We Owe the Future) have noted in their respective books that technological progress and improvements in living standards appear to have slowed down since the explosive period of innovation and growth between 1870 – 1970. In What We Owe the Future, MacAskill estimates that each doubling of technological advancement requires four times as much research effort as the previous doubling. Stanford economists argue that the easiest ideas have been found and implemented, leaving the more difficult discoveries that require much more effort to find, although this explanation is not universally accepted. As Garrison Lovely points out in his 2022 BBC article

“Ideas can be combined and recombined, creating a combinatorial explosion of new innovations, an effect that counters the gobbling of low-hanging fruit. And some have pointed out that if you measure research productivity and benefits differently, the picture is much rosier.” 

However, the fear of stagnation is one of the main driving forces behind Progress Studies.

In summary, the field of Progress Studies examines the economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organisational changes that have improved standards of living over human history, seeking to identify the individuals, cultures, and institutions responsible for this progress, and to apply this knowledge to the design of interventions aimed at further improving the human condition.

Listening suggestion: Hear This Idea podcast: Jason Crawford on Progress Studies

How can engineers contribute to Progress Studies?

What are the bottlenecks?

This Atlantic article dives into what Progress Studies would investigate. We summarise some of the points here.

  • The field of Progress Studies is incredibly broad, and research to tackle these important questions is divided over many different fields, such as sociology, psychometrics, anthropology, psychology, sportometrics, economics, management science, etc. A multidisciplinary approach is essential to answer these questions, but the world would benefit from a more organised effort.
  • Some topics to investigate include:
    • Effective approaches to identify and train talented young individuals.
    • Strategies for small groups to efficiently exchange and disseminate ideas.
    • Designing incentives for diverse participants in innovative ecosystems, such as scientists, entrepreneurs, managers, and engineers.
    • Understanding the varying levels of productivity among different organisations and the factors influencing these differences.
    • Methods for selecting and funding scientists.
    • Exploration of other related issues.
  • Organisations such as Y Combinator, Entrepreneur First, and NASA have shown time and again to catalyse progress that affects wider society. It would be very impactful to understand what sets these organisations apart from others and implement interventions that increase the efficiency, productivity, and innovative capacity of our organisations.
  • Despite the significant contributions from scientific research to economic growth and our quality of life, there has been limited investigation into how best to structure the scientific endeavour itself. A 2011 paper revealed that supporting promising scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute with long-term grants increased the likelihood of those scientists to produce groundbreaking work by 96%. If this finding proves replicable, current funding processes could likely be much improved to allow more research autonomy and risk-taking.
  • Changes in demographics and institutional trends have silently reshaped the support structure for science. Take the National Institutes of Health, the biggest science funding source in the U.S., for instance. In 1980, it allocated 12 times more funding to scientists under 40 than those over 50. Fast forward to today, and the tables have turned: scientists aged 50 or older now get five times more funding. Is this shift towards funding older scientists a positive change? If not, how should we rethink science funding distribution? Other questions about the impact of prizes, fellowships, sabbaticals, and the optimal organisation of scientific bodies should also be asked. Despite the significance of these issues, there's a shortage of critical evaluation on how science is practised and funded. Addressing these questions would be a crucial aspect of Progress Studies.

Career moves

Since Progress Studies covers so much ground, there are many ways you can contribute.

  • Engineers are in a good position to contribute to literature on progress studies. Engineers understand how technologies get developed and implemented and are generally excited about technological advances. To contribute to this literature, it is a good idea to start writing early so you can build up your writing skills. Eventually, you might be able to contribute to places such as the Institute for Progress or join the Roots of Progress Fellowship.
  • Since Progress Studies relies on findings from many different disciplines, it could be useful to gather all this information in one place. Our World in Data is one such organisation that does this, but other institutions like the Civil Service may also provide you with opportunities to gather this information and implement good policies to encourage progress.
  • Working in an organisation famous for its innovation (e.g. NASA) or going through incubators like Y Combinator or Entrepreneur First may help you understand what factors catalyse progress.
  • Similar to our page on other ways to contribute to climate change without being an engineer, there are opportunities to contribute to Progress Studies without being an engineer.
    • Venture capitalists generally love to fund innovation, and working for a VC could be useful in understanding how to evaluate the potential impact of an innovation.
      • Many traditional VC funds are not adequately equipped to evaluate the potential impact and performance of technical startups. This is because they lack analysts with science or engineering backgrounds who have the requisite skills to conduct in-depth technical assessments of the product or service being developed.
      • One downside is that VCs don’t generally fund very speculative or immature technologies, or technologies that don’t have a high earning potential, so you may not gain the skills needed to evaluate these unproven technologies.
    • Grantmaking requires similar skills to being a VC, but philanthropic/governmental grants tend to be more focused on speculative technologies. Working in grantmaking can help to build an understanding of how to evaluate grants based on impact and provide the best incentives in philanthropy/government to make progress.
      • Similarly to VCs, grantmakers at large funding organisations need analysts with science or engineering backgrounds to conduct in-depth technical assessments of the programs they fund. These could include governmental organisations like ARPA-E in the US, which funds a lot of the early-stage work into things like superhot rock geothermal, and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) in the UK.
      • Analysts are also required in think tanks and charity evaluators, such as Founders Pledge, Let’s Fund, Giving Green, ClimateWorks, and others. Bear in mind, however, that you may not have a lot of influence depending on the foundation. Read this career profile on foundation grantmaking for more information.
    • Influencing policy is an important way to stimulate innovation. One way is to work in government (e.g. the Civil Service) to make sure the public sector can shape and stimulate progress by implementing the best policies and incentives. You can also influence policy outside of your work by contributing as a member of the public to Policy Papers like the UK’s National Vision for Engineering Biology.

Risks, pitfalls, and things to keep in mind

  • Current research into progress tends to be split up over many different disciplines. There could be a risk of knowledge being siloed rather than shared, leading to redundant work and miscommunication.
  • You might not agree with the intense focus on economic growth, which is often used as a proxy for innovation and progress, and has become the default goal. You may also have other philosophical disagreements with Progress Studies, as it tends towards techno-utopianism (”critics claim that techno-utopianism’s identification of social progress with scientific progress is a form of positivism and scientism”; “they also point out that it has little to say about the environmental impact of technology and that its ideas have little relevance for much of the rest of the world that are still relatively quite poor” – Wikipedia).
  • Depending on what you count as progress, it may not solely hinge on new discoveries and inventions; progress can also result from improved distribution of their benefits. Some argue that enhancing the quality of life can be most efficiently achieved by widely disseminating existing technologies rather than constantly pursuing new innovations. If you lean towards this perspective, your focus might be on global health and development rather than progress studies, which primarily emphasises advancing cutting-edge technologies in affluent, democratic nations like the US, rather than facilitating catch-up growth that uplifts poor countries.

Learn More

Additional Resources

Relevant Organisations

Progress Studies is still a burgeoning field, but a few organisations have been established.

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