People are excited about the Obama administration’s science and technology initiatives. That’s not surprising: the new administration appears fervently pro-science, believes in the efficacy of government spending, and promises to give research and advanced technology massive boosts.
Expect few, if any, technology innovations.
Both Democrats and Republicans seem to think government can drive innovation. Democrats tend to see government leading innovation while Republicans usually see government playing a supporting role.
Neither party has ever conducted a thorough and objective study of government’s record driving innovation. If they had, then they would know that innovation is not something you can plan. It’s something that almost always happens independently and spontaneously—usually in the face of indifference, skepticism or even hardened resistance.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for politicians to fool the public into believing that they can just order a series of breakthroughs. And it’s even easier to fool scientists who will be on the receiving end of the money spigot.
I’m not saying this is a purely black and white issue. Sometimes government can spur innovation. But for every top-down success there are hundreds of top-down failures. And when government does spur innovation, it often isn’t anything like what was ordered.
Al Gore’s claim that he helped create the Internet is not baseless. He was a long-time proponent of government funding for high-speed data networks interconnecting computer centers at major universities. The internet protocol suite was invented at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as was the word “Internet.”
But politicians often ignore crucial details. Technology policymakers tend to back large, committee-based efforts to develop national or international standards. Yet the internet protocol suite was the result of a (low budget) skunkworks effort, and it completely undermined the International Standards Organization’s program to establish an open systems interconnection standard. And while Gore envisioned an information superhighway interconnecting public institutions, the Internet took off because it interconnected individual microcomputer users.
You might reply: “So what if only one out of hundreds of government-funded projects pay off? Venture capitalists don’t expect every investment to pay off."
The difference is that government involvement skews the playing field. Permitting government officials to decide which technologies get an extra push is an invitation to corruption. It often results in those same officials throwing obstacles in the paths of competing technologies. In contrast, there are many VCs funding competing technologies, and VCs don’t have powers they can abuse to block rival technologies.
Government spending in areas such as defense and space exploration sometimes leads to important innovations. However, government tends to exaggerate its role while downplaying that of private industry. The claim that government drives innovation is often accompanied by warnings that the failure to increase funding will result in the U.S. falling further behind other countries. When a business makes false claims it is subject to outside investigation and prosecution; when the government makes false claims it has the advantage of also being judge and jury.
Some government initiatives are simply ill-advised. Government routinely claims regulation is needed to protect consumers against unfair business practices, but regulation has often been used to establish and protect monopolies. And when government talks about preserving neutrality, ensuring diversity, and protecting children you can almost count on the exact opposite.
I don’t know about you, but my house is filled with innovative products invented and produced by the private—not the public—sector.