Monday, February 11, 2008

Our Nation's Innovation Dilemma

I came across John Kao's new blog, "Innovation Nation," at The Huffington Post.

His first post, The Innovation "Frame", is a good start to what I believe is an important topic and discussion to push into the national spotlight. An excerpt:

We've had the Iraq "frame," and now the recession and change "frames." But what about the Innovation "frame?" Are we just not getting the importance of innovation? Vannevar Bush, presidential science advisor, said it best in 1947, "A nation that loses its science and technology will lose control of its destiny." More recently the National Academy of Science referred to the problem as a "gathering storm." And in my own recent book, Innovation Nation, I state that America is losing its innovation edge with profound implications for our security and prosperity as a nation.

Is anybody listening out there in leader-land?

History will show America's current innovation melt-down to have been an egregious self-inflicted wound. I would need ten times this space just to recite a list of dismal facts about how poorly our national innovation system is performing. Some headlines: our young scientists are abandoning their careers with increasing frequency, talent is increasingly not coming to our storied shores, our public education and R & D are showing significant erosion, we're strapped for cash, other countries are leading us in a growing number of scientific fields, and nobody seems to care.

I blogged about a related topic back in 2003 ("It's Not The Deficit Stupid!... Tech is the Primary Driver of Economic Growth"). An excerpt:

Nelson and others within the same camp believe technical advance or growth in technology account for 50%-70%+ of long-term economic growth. Seeing how the U.S. has become the world's foremost economic power, it's difficult to deny some of the truth and theories developed from Nelson and others. Whole new industries were created by developments that sprouted from U.S. R&D labs throughout the 20th century. From Xerox's fabled Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to AT&T's Bell Labs to DARPA, inventions such as laser printing (1971), Ethernet, the graphical user interface, the Internet (1969), and cellular communications (1947) were given birth to in these halls.

One of the people most responsible was Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development under FDR. His report to President Roosevelt, "Science The Endless Frontier" (July 1945), help set forth and secure U.S. investment into scientific research as one of its core policies. Heavy investment by the government into various military and non-military labs were initiated.

One danger that is recently occurring is the decrease in funding for basic research. Basic research allows scientists to research for the sake of researching. To seek out their curiosities and find the truths of the universe. This is more of a non-linear approach that allows for a wide-range of possibilities, and many inventions that have changed our lives have come from basic research (e.g. x-rays, superconductivity, laser... what would you do without CDs or DVDs?). Over the past decade, corporations under pressure to perform have cut back or closed down their basic research efforts and only focused on applied research that seeks out a specific solution or product that can eventually generate revenue for the company.

I haven't read John Mao's book ("Innovation Nation") yet, but I assume it includes my concerns and others that I haven't blogged about. For me, there are three primary areas of concern with our nation's innovation engine:

1. Decreases in overall scientific research dollars, especially in basic research.

2. Changes in the education system that are degrading our culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity (future blog post).

3. Continued blockade and movement of immigrants into the U.S. fabric hence depleting our innovation engine of a primary "fuel" source (increase H-1Bs!).

While I believe research dollars are the primary driver, our nation's culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is still unique and unmatched so we need to continue to lead in all these areas through sound public policy, investment and education. The next president has to take a strong lead on this and change the course of our rapidly weakening strongholds, or our nation's ideals, economy and future generations will suffer.

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