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"Scientific Freedom" as the Final Creator Economy Frontier

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Hypothesis: The same effect that has transformed media and financial markets — the internet-enabled unbundling of incumbent institutional structures in the direction of individual power — will soon arrive in the world of science. It is valuable to explore ways to accelerate the onset by empowering individual scientists – "Scientific Freedom" — through better tooling, incentive systems, and direct access.

"Creator" and "creator economy" have become suitcase words used in various contexts to mean both too much and too little.

To overcome the baggage that has become attached to the idea — and to start considering relevance to the world of science — it is helpful to ground what we mean in a more thorough definition.

Fundamentally, we can think of creators as people with permissionless paths to (professional) self-actualization. A creator economy emerges in a given domain when new technology unlocks, among other things:

  • Lower cost and complexity of output (better tooling and access to capital)
  • More precise attribution of value creation
  • Different distribution channels and the emergence of a new "discovery chain"
  • New paths to collaboration leading to the breakdown of inorganic silos
  • Redefinition and redistribution of social capital

These shifts in scarcity port market power from institutions to individuals, effectively unbundling the firm (or the organization form most central to a given economic ecosystem).

The unbundling of the firm has been in flight for decades. Increased access to global labor markets brought us outsourcing. The proliferation of cloud computing and mobile took this a step further, making it possible to externalize an increasing number of key operational functions and allowing for more asset-light business models.

The next step in the evolution of the firm will build on this but will come at the problem from a different direction. It will be defined by the rise of One Person Companies. Creators and knowledge workers will access external services that provide the capabilities to start and scale a firm and then re-bundle them in unique ways around their core skill set. They will monetize by selling products, services, and expertise to an owned audience that their core skill set has helped them build.

New platforms and infrastructure providers will emerge to support the tens of millions of individuals capable of building successful One Person Companies along with the billions of consumers and businesses that will support them. More generally, the rise of the One Person Companies will inject dynamism into the broader economy and will play a role in driving more inclusive innovation.

These same trends will — in due time — make a transformational impact on the way scientific discovery is funded, executed, applied, and communicated.

Permissionless Leverage

Returning to the five bullet points above, the institutional imperative in each case is towards obfuscation, which help an institution grow in influence and sustain itself.

This has rational grounding — important institutions are intended to be stable and long-lived. Institutions should be low variance, whereas power in the hands of individuals often leads to high variance outcomes.

But across the economy, high variance outcomes are becoming the norm as power shifts to the individual. Dror Poleg calls this the "rise of the 10x class".

When it comes to software developers, “imperfect substitution” is strong. As Joel Spolsky points out in his analysis of superstar engineers, “the quality of the work and the amount of time spent are simply uncorrelated.” One great engineer can do in one hour what ten mediocre engineers cannot do in a day.

The notion of the 10X engineer is now a full-blown meme, but it is backed by extensive research. The idea originates from a 1968 analysis of two productivity studies focused on computer programmers. The studies revealed “large individual differences between high and low performers, often by an order of magnitude.“ The Harvard Business Review concurs that “in fields like computer programming, an eight-to-one difference between the productivity of stars and average workers has been reported.” Professor Mark Guzdial summarizes the literature on the subject here.

These performance differences are reflected in the hiring policies and actual results of the world’s most innovative companies. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

One top-notch engineer is worth "300 times or more than the average," explains Alan Eustace, a Google vice president of engineering. He says he would rather lose an entire incoming class of engineering graduates than one exceptional technologist. Many Google services, such as Gmail and Google News, were started by a single person, he says.

The 10x class shows up first in areas where institutions are weakest or where economic incentives are most clear. This is why TikTok influencers (no blocking institutions) and software engineers (clear incentives) alike have found ways scale their impact and income, wheras scientists (powerful gatekeepers and mixed/misaligned incentives) remain under the thumb of institutional power.

Next Steps

In the months and years to come, we should explore ways to optimize for high variance outcomes (i.e. people-led value chain vs. institution-led) in science through the pursuit of "scientific freedom".

Effectively, we should seek to create permissionless paths to (professional) self-actualization (impact, influence, income) for the world's greatest scientists.

We will do this by evaluating how to build programs, products, and incentive structures that help to, again, among other things:

  • Lower the cost and complexity of coordination and output (better tooling and access to capital)
  • Create more precise attribution of value creation
  • Develop novel distribution channels and the emergence of new "discovery chain"
  • Unlock paths to collaboration leading to the breakdown of inorganic silos
  • Redefine and redistribute domain-specific social capital

Further Reading: