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Does the American Innovation System Need a Reboot?

The principles underlying the U.S. approach to government-funded research and development remain solid—but the world has changed
ithium-ion battery


Lithium ion batteries are an example of an important technology sponsored and developed in the U.S. but commercialized overseas.
Credit: Immortal_Undead/Flickr

SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

Vannevar Bush, the director of the World War II–era Office of Scientific Research and Development, was an innovator in fields including electrical engineering, computation and medicine. He invented the differential analyzer (an early analog computer), a silicone rubber valve for the heart and even an early version of a machine to search across large amounts of books and periodicals (what we now call a search engine). But his greatest contribution to American science was shaping the U.S. research and development system as we know it today.

In his pioneering report Science, the Endless Frontier, which he delivered to Pres. Harry Truman in July 1945, Bush argued that continuing the basic research activities of World War II (albeit with an expansionist pivot toward peaceful as well as military uses) would have remunerative benefits—that is, they would grow the economy, create jobs and generally benefit society. To that end, Bush helped create the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Naval Research as well as the precursor of today’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within the Executive Office of the President, among others.

The basic tenets of Bush’s framework remain just a relevant today as they were more than half a century ago. We still benefit from his emphasis on the government’s nearly exclusive role in supporting long-term research that would otherwise languish due to a lack of private sector support. His belief in free enterprise and the work ethic, along with his support for developing and nurturing what we now call the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce, remain cornerstones of U.S. innovation policy.

What has changed is the context. In Bush’s day the U.S. was an undisputed economic superpower. Today the nation must consider economic competition and cooperation from a relatively unified Europe. New competitors are emerging—in particular, the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Moreover, scientific and technological advances are coming at an unprecedented and accelerating rate.

The big question we have to consider is this: Is the U.S. maximally, or even significantly, capitalizing on its research investments? Are we seeing the high-quality jobs, the growth in GDP and the societal benefits that should flow from our national investments in innovation? Without abandoning the principles of free enterprise, we should ask whether a more holistic national innovation strategy—one involving the public, private, academic and nonprofit sectors together—could increase the odds that our national science and technology investments realize commercial success.

A 2012 report reminds us that these aren’t hypothetical questions. In Rising to the Challenge: U.S. Innovation Policy for Global Economy, the National Research Council (NRC) identified several important technologies that were sponsored by and developed in the U.S. but commercialized overseas. Examples include rechargeable lithium ion batteries, liquid-crystal displays, oxide ceramics, semiconductor memory devices, flat-panel displays and solar cells.

None of this should be construed as any sort of jingoistic rejection of international partnership and cooperation. In fact, the opposite is true: Opportunities for international cooperation are greater than ever, especially in the context of precompetitive R&D and standards-making as well as environmental, health and safety risk management.

Nevertheless, any country with an innovation-oriented economy that would like to appropriately capitalize on its own investments must face certain realities and reexamine old assumptions. Among them is the Bush-era idea that, by and large, the benefits of U.S.-initiated innovation will automatically remain within the U.S. In our globalized era this is not necessarily true. As the NRC reminds us, we cannot assume that when we design things here, the benefits will stay here. There are reports that other nations are aggressively acquiring U.S. intellectual property for new innovations, in some opportunistic cases, for pennies on the dollar.

A reconsidered Bush framework should also take into account the benefits of locating manufacturing, design and innovation in one place, rather than spreading them across the globe. It should also address concerns of the small to medium-size U.S. businesses who sometimes feel if they are competing on an uneven global playing field, competing against foreign companies that have the full sponsorship and backing of their home nations.

Against this backdrop, at the request of the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)—under the leadership of the comptroller general of the United States and in partnership with key experts—recently delved into these and other issues as they relate to the movement of nanotechnology into manufacturing.

The resulting GAO study, which is being released today, notes that the U.S. is still widely seen as the world’s premier basic research nation—including for nanotechnology. Yet many people have concerns about our national ability to capture value from our collective investments, whether through developing intellectual property, licensing and commercialization, manufacturing goods at scale or delivering new services.

Nanotechnology is only one research frontier, but it is an important one, with profound implications for society, human health, the economy and the environment. Some observers compare nanotechnology with other transformative general purpose technologies such as plastics, semiconductors and even electricity. As such, it has direct bearing on all of the components of the U.S. innovation system—basic research, the manufacturing sector, the STEM workforce and the economy as a whole. Thus, it may provide an excellent opportunity to revisit the principles, spelled out more than half a century ago by Vannevar Bush, undergirding that system, and to find the best way forward for innovation in the American economy.

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