Sunday, August 25, 2013

Less Knowledge Is Less Power

With little fanfare, we recently passed a major technological milestone: the sale of the one-billionth Internet-enabled smartphone worldwide. About one in seven humans on earth hold the Internet in their hands – not bad for a technology that hardly existed 10 years ago. Worldwide sales of smart tablets, a technology barely three years old, exceeded 100 million units in 2012 and are set to surpass 600 million in the next few years.
That's the opening to the latest op-ed I helped put together and place with my friend Neal Lane for US News and World Report. Neal is a top-notch writer and innovation policy advocate, and a pleasure to work with.

It's amazing how much this story—of how innovation is what drives economic growth—is so taken-for-granted in the circles I travel, and yet still seems novel to vast swarths of the American public. In progressive economic policy, in business school, and in science and technology circles, the idea that innovation, both radical and incremental, is responsible for better economic outcomes is not only taken for given, it's taken for granted. Yet each time we work on one of these projects, the press treats it like a totally novel concept.

Part of the issue is that the innovation policy community lacks a strong communications push or much coordination to help keep these messages going, with perhaps the notable exception of folks like Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. We need to keep elevating folks like Neal, like Bill, and like Neal Lane to continue to grow our American culture of Innovation and ensure we send leaders to Washington who are prepared to make the rational investments we need to educate, innovate, build, and grow.

The rest of the article, reprinted from US News and World, is below:
This isn't just good news for web lovers and email addicts – these exploding markets represent tremendous sources of economic growth and job creation across the entire value chain, from manufacture, to infrastructure, to retail, to app development. The global smartphone market was estimated to be worth $219 billion last year, while the iPhone 5 alone was thought to have added as much as 0.5 percent to the GDP of the United States in the fourth quarter of 2012. These billions of dollars translate into millions of jobs.
The idea that new technological innovations are major drivers of economic growth is not new. In fact, economist Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize for his observation that roughly half of the U.S.'s economic growth since the 1950s could be attributed to technological advancement.
This inextricable relationship between technology and prosperity is why it's particularly troubling to see the severe cuts to federal science and technology programs continuing under the sequester. After all, it has often been public investments in science and engineering research that have paved the way for robust private sector growth in new American industries.
Of course, Apple and its competitors created this new industry. But the technologies that make smart phones and tablets possible came from discoveries made through federally funded research. According to one analysis by Research Trends, the technologies used in LCD screens, lithium-ion batteries, digital hard drive storage and Internet protocols – all critical to these success of these devices – were enabled by key research discoveries funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Departments of Energy and Defense.

None of this research was carried out with a smartphone or tablet in mind. It is simply not possible to say in advance where fundamental research will lead – but without the research, revolutions like this one won't happen.

Beyond tablets and smartphones, some of the United States' most economically important industries, from aerospace to biotechnology to software, can be traced to an alphabet soup of federal research programs – NASA, DARPA, NIST, DoD, NSF, NIH, DoE, and others. One analysis drew a direct connection from the United States' $750 billion biotechnology industry to a $3.6 billion investment in the Human Genome Project, which had the support of four presidents. Another showed that each year the National Institutes of Health generates twice as much economic benefit as it costs to run.

When I served as President Clinton's chief advisor for science and technology, I saw both Republicans and Democrats rally around a number of bipartisan innovation initiatives, such as funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative and the completion of the first draft sequence of the human genome. Though it was a time of deep partisan division on many issues, we found we could agree that government investments in research were critically important to the future of the economy.
America is at an economic crossroads. The current path of austerity leads to ever diminishing returns – cutbacks on research and training of future scientists and engineers, slowdowns in technological innovation and fewer high quality jobs for Americans down the road. The right path for the country is increased investment in research and innovation, which history has shown reliably yields a high return.
Shutting off the sequester and any other science-cutting measures that Congress may be considering and restoring funding for critical research is an essential and urgent first step. But we need to go further.
An insightful report by the Center for American Progress called "300 Million Engines of Growth," outlinesan aggressive vision for reinventing the U.S. innovation system for the 21st century. It advocates placing the budgets of three key federal research agencies on a sustainable doubling path, making sure we get the most we can out of our national labs, and investing in grand challenges in the form of what it calls "Frontier Prizes" that can push the boundaries of science and engineering.
In an increasingly globalized and digitized world, nations across the globe recognize that knowledge quite literally is power. Members of Congress who place austerity above all else need to ask themselves how falling back from the frontiers of knowledge is somehow good for the economy. I have yet to hear that argument.
Neal Lane is a former science advisor to President Bill Clinton and currently a Professor at Rice University.

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