Speaking to the annual gathering of the National Academy of Science, President Obama announced the goal of spending more than 3% of the United States’ gross domestic product on research and development. The President believes that increased R&D spending will spur innovation.
No one can deny that government-funded research has produced some spectacular successes—particularly in national defense and space exploration. But its record in other spheres is not nearly as good. Worse, government tends to politicize everything it touches, and for science that can be the kiss of death.
Most great inventions come from the private sector. This is an indisputable fact. The telegraph, telephone, trains, automobiles, airplanes, radio, and television were all developed by the private sector. And it is no accident. Businesses, if only to survive, must create products people want, in forms they can use, and at prices they can afford.
Proponents of government-funded research counter that while most inventions come from the private sector, most of the fundamental science behind those inventions does not. We need government to ensure enough “pure research” is being conducted now to fuel commercial innovation later.
That sounds reasonable, but it does not comport with the facts. The charge that the private sector eschews basic research isn’t true. In the past, Bell Laboratories and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research were leaders in both basic and applied research. Large corporations such as IBM and private universities continue to conduct basic research. Granted, the private sector may be conducting less pure research today, but that’s largely due to high corporate taxes and absurd reporting rules for publicly-traded companies.
I discussed John D. Rockefeller’s contributions to medical research in a previous post. My purpose at the time was to show that Rockefeller—accused of being a 19th century robber baron—has been maligned. But there is another point that needs to be emphasized. As a private philanthropist, Rockefeller was able to apply his business skills and connections to achieve very ambitious goals. He consciously avoided one of the pitfalls of government-funded research: the creation of a class of researchers who exist merely to feed at the public trough. To wit, Rockefeller obtained a bigger bang for his research buck than government has ever achieved or is ever likely to achieve.
But that’s not all. Government funding of scientific research is fraught with danger. Government often favors specific technologies or scientists for political reasons. For example, government has proved highly susceptible to political pressure from environmentalists. (Consequently, a great deal of research these days targets unreliable and uneconomical "alternative energy sources.") Government officials are sometimes tempted to use procurement and regulations to help their friends. The point is not that business people are inherently more ethical than government employees. The point is that business people are ultimately judged according to an external standard (the marketplace), while government employees are mainly judged by other government employees.
The biggest problem with President Obama’s research policy, however, is that it could end up thwarting innovation. Politicians like to manage and control things. Naturally, they are reluctant to admit that innovation often occurs spontaneously and comes from unexpected sources. There’s nothing wrong with a modest amount of government-driven research. But when government dominates the business of research as President Obama intends, there is real danger that genuine innovators will be crowded out.
Is there anything government can do to promote science and technology innovation? The answer is “No and yes.” For starters, politicians must realize that you can’t stimulate innovation as much as they pretend, and you certainly can’t plan it. Above all, innovation requires freedom. It’s all about doing what others think can’t be done or shouldn’t be done or isn’t worth doing.
There is one other thing that politicians can do to promote science and technology innovation. They can reverse Western Civilization’s slide towards mediocrity. I’m talking about the phenomenon that is best exemplified by the popular education slogan “Let no child be left behind.” It is a noble sentiment that in practice translates to “Let no child get too far ahead.” We have to choose: do we want everyone to be equally unsuccessful or are we willing to let a few excel? Innovation requires accepting and even embracing unequal outcomes.