Shadows of the future, after Michael Nielsen

There are lots of novel research and arts funding programs which offer fellowships and grants. The trouble is that there isn’t an off-ramp from these programs into a subsequent viable structure of funding institutions. If the funding period is relatively short—like two years—the grant recipient may not really lean into the desired new way of thinking because they know, in the back of their mind, that they have to keep their future options open with older funding models. Michael Nielsen calls these concerns “shadows of the future.”

Donald Braben tries to avoid these sorts of shadows by committing to funding over a long period (ten years, I believe). His idea there is that if the idea is successful, it’ll likely appear (at least somewhat) successful to establishment institutions within that time frame. I don’t think this fully mitigates the problem described in this note. There are many examples of discoveries which took multiple decades, or which were completed within a decade but which took many decades to be appreciated. But of course it helps.

This is a significant problem in my own work: it’s hard for me to find collaborators because I’m in a relatively unique funding position, personally. It’s not clearly replicable. And so I can probably find temporary funding for others, but they’d have shadows of the future to contend with. And, frankly, I still feel shadows of the future after ~2.5 years with Patreon. It’s just not enough time to feel comfortable that the income is secure over the long term, particularly since it’s new.

Of course, tech-adjacent people like myself have much less to worry about here. I can always get a well-paying job. The threat for me is “you’ll have to work on something you don’t care about,” or maybe even just “you’ll have to work on something that isn’t self-directed” rather than “you’ll be financially ruined” or “you’ll have to restart your career” or typical stakes for hard scientists.

Q. What’s an example “shadow of the future”?
A. Novel science funder tries to get people to join unusual institution, but can promise only three-year grant. Fundees can’t really lean into the new model because there’s no long-term off-ramp; they have to maintain optionality in the old system.


Ben Reinhardt first related this concept to me in our 2021-08-22 conversation.