On December 2, the centennial anniversary of Einstein’s publication of his general theory of relativity, science fans everywhere will reflect on this amazing act of genius that fundamentally reshaped our understanding of gravity and introduced the world to the curved nature of spacetime. But the theory was not born, fully formed, in some Eureka! moment. Einstein chipped away at it for years. He was finally driven to complete it by a fierce (though collegial) rivalry with the mathematician David Hilbert, who had listened to Einstein describe his ideas and then proceeded to work out many of the equations himself [see “How Einstein Reinvented Reality” by Walter Isaacson, Scientific American, September 2015].

Examine the detailed history of most any iconic scientific discovery or technological invention—the light bulb, the transistor, DNA, even the Internet—and you’ll find that the famous names credited with the breakthrough were only a few steps ahead of a pack of competitors nipping at their heels. It’s hardly a new observation. But recently some influential writers and elected officials have used the phenomenon of parallel innovation to argue against the public financing of basic research.

In his new book The Evolution of Everything (HarperCollins), for example, Matt Ridley describes “the overwhelming inevitability in the progress of technology” as “an emergent phenomenon.” In this British aristocrat’s libertarian view, government just gets in the way of the natural evolution of science and invention. “Leave people free to exchange ideas and back hunches, and innovation will follow,” he predicts. “So too will scientific insight.”

One can hear similar Pollyannaish thinking these days in the halls of the U.S. Congress. We’re spending too much taxpayer money on science, some politicians argue. Patents are a hindrance to progress, others say. Government should pull back and leave it to companies to finance the research they need. Manufacturers should be able to copy others’ ideas more easily.

I can tell you, from a long career fostering and managing R&D in industry, that this argument is dangerously wrong. Set aside the many scientific investigations that have delivered huge intellectual benefits but no monetary profits: those that brought us the Higgs boson, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, the Big Bang, and the methane seas of Titan, for example. Companies know that even in fields like materials science and computer science, basic research is a form of charity. So they avoid it.

At Microsoft, Bill Gates and I created Microsoft Research, the largest industrial research lab founded in a generation, at the same time that AT&T, IBM, and Xerox were winding down their storied lab systems. We were very clear at Microsoft that basic research was not our mission.

The experiences of AT&T’s Bell Labs and the others exemplified why. Scientists at Bell Labs created the transistor—and it earned billions for Intel (and Microsoft). IBM researchers pioneered the use of giant magnetoresistance to boost hard disk capacity, but soon lost the disk drive business to Seagate and Western Digital. Engineers at Xerox PARC invented the mouse and graphical user interface, but it was Apple (and Microsoft) who profited most.

The lessons were clear enough to Bill and me: unless our researchers focused narrowly on innovations that we could turn into revenues quickly, we wouldn’t be able to justify the R&D budget to our investors. All of those great ideas listed above were patented, but patents offer only very limited protection. And in order to receive a patent, you must first explain how your idea works. The patent application itself inspires competitors to work around your invention by creating new and even better ideas.

The business logic at work here has not changed. Those who believe that profit-driven companies will altruistically pay for basic science that has wide-ranging benefits—but mostly to others, and not for a generation—are naïve.

After retiring from Microsoft, I launched an invention company, Intellectual Ventures. I am one of hundreds of inventors at IV who make a business out of creating, buying and selling ideas, not products. Together we generate thousands of new inventions every year, many of them through brainstorming sessions. Those sessions almost always start with a survey of the latest scientific advances in a given area.

An invention is the application of general knowledge to solve a specific problem. Every time scientists add to the stockpile of knowledge, they empower inventors to put it to use. And inventors in turn create new tools that make scientists’ jobs easier. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

But here’s the crucial insight that Viscount Ridley and laissez-faire economists seem to miss: the whole symbiotic system of science-supported invention and invention-supported science is driven by competition and communication. These two essential forces depend crucially on government support. Undermine either, and you sever the fuel line to the engine of economic growth.

Outsiders don’t often think of science as a competition, but scientists certainly do. Researchers compete intensely for jobs, funding, lab space, instrument time, students, and recognition. Why? Human instinct, yes, in part. But the main reason is that the government agencies that pay for most research have set up the rules of this game to provide disproportionate rewards to scientists who deliver impressive results repeatedly.

Nobel prizes don't reward all the work that leads up to major discoveries
Credit: Solis Invicti/Flickr

Maybe that seems unfair. But it’s no less fair than Michael Phelps receiving 18 gold medals in the Olympics, even though he and his relay teams won many of those races by less than a second. Is it fair that Peter Higgs and Francois Englert got Nobel Prizes for predicting the Higgs boson, even though several other theorists also predicted it independently, and hundreds of experimental physicists struggled for years to actually detect it?

It is not fair—but it is useful. Phelps trained relentlessly and showed up to all those Olympics because gold medals, and all the rewards that come with them, were on offer. All around the world, scientists push themselves and their colleagues in the hope of winning a Nobel or some other great glory. Inventors similarly work hard and fast once they get a good idea because they want the patent that goes only to whomever files first.

The brilliant part of the scheme that has been so successful over the past century is that in order to compete, researchers and inventors have to share their results quickly—even with their competitors. In academia, this is known as “publish or perish.” It’s not uncommon for a small team of scientists to publish a dozen or more peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations in a year, explaining in great detail what they found and how they found it. When Michael Phelps looks over his shoulder and sees someone gaining on him, he swims that much faster. The same dynamic propels science forward.

And invention as well. It’s fashionable these days to malign patents as overly vague, hard to read, or restrictive on innovation. It may seem that way to the uninitiated. But as someone who reads patents all the time, I assure you that they convey enormous amounts of information, and usually a clever inventor can find a way to invent around a patent. All this is by design. Patent examiners are required to reject any that don’t clearly and completely describe the invention, and to narrow any that overreach. Bad patents that do slip through are routinely challenged and invalidated.

What would happen if government left it to the private sector to pay for basic research or made patents meaningless? A screeching halt to most science, is the short answer. And what research survived would be done largely in secret, for fear of handing the next big thing to an archrival. With communication squelched, progress would slow to a crawl.

The system we enjoy in the U.S. is arguably the most productive innovation engine in the world. But it is not perfect. In research, too many scientific articles get stuck behind high-priced pay walls that put them out of reach for non-academic researchers and scientists in low- and middle-income countries. And too many grants and other rewards are given based on reputation or cronyism. A blinded, strictly merit-based system would be better.

Meanwhile, progress in technology is slowed by an understaffed patent office that takes too long to rule on applications and by new rules that allow companies to tie inventors up with repeated challenges because they don’t want to see a better, competing idea come to market.

But we can solve these problems with relatively minor tweaks to the rules of the game—rules that governments control—to reward those who play hard, play fair, and simply perform better. Einsteins are few and far between. But the truth is we don’t have to wait for a rare genius so long as we stoke the competitive instincts of the smartest people around and persuade them to share their discoveries, in exchange for a shot at glory and riches.


Nathan Myhrvold is cofounder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, WA. He previously worked for Microsoft as Chief Technology Officer and founded Microsoft Research.