With the recent passing of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, the US has made the most ambitious push in science-driven innovation in 75 years since the days of Vannevar Bush’s Endless frontier report and the establishment of the National Science Foundation. Make no mistake: this is a turning point in the “new space race” between China and the US
But this funding increase is only the first step. To increase America’s innovative power, we must build on the good existing aspects of the American innovation system and develop a modern innovation ecosystem that will once again lead the world into the future. This depends on continuing with three core requirements in mind.
Cultivating strategic opportunities broadly
Once upon a time there were bold statements in JFK’s moonshot speech were representative of the climate spanning the US innovation landscape. More recently, the US innovation system has spent decades playing little balls, resulting in the so-called “Valley of Death” that continues to kill and/or delay promising early-stage innovations.
This incremental innovation approach is the result of several trends. Increasingly, we see governments working with a limited number of preferred large business partners, often through dedicated contract tools designed to accelerate procurement, but with the cooling effect of driving out innovative small and medium-sized businesses. Of course, the largest public companies respond primarily to short-term profit motives to please investors; government funds a wide range of science projects with little strategic coordination between agencies and sometimes crowds out innovation. Second, governments are developing new programs and building labs to innovate to replace commercial efforts. While we understand the impetus, all too often direct government innovation efforts have resulted in bloated and slow (and ultimately failed) programs that focus large sums of money on internal efforts and/or “trusted” partners, including the famous Langley . Airport (among many others).
America must resist both over-reliance on short-term profit motives and over-reliance on widespread government intervention. Instead, it should unleash the pent-up entrepreneurial and patriotic spirit across the country. There should be incentives across the ecosystem for long-term research and technology programs designed to focus on large-scale societal problems and opportunities – considering the potential strategic gains in addition to (or instead of) the financial payback. Importantly, this is as much in the interest of industry as it is of government: creating strategic innovation assets led by entrepreneurial enterprises and pioneering companies is the most powerful lever to maintain competitive advantage in the medium to long term.
Strengthen the scientific process
To remain the world’s foremost innovator, the US must build the deepest talent base possible and then pave the way for that talent to do their best work. Much has been written about the need to expand access and equality for careers in science and technology – and for good reason. But if we succeed in broadening the bank, what professional levers will this influx of talent have? Quite a few leading commentators have complained that perhaps the funding process, from government acquisitions to innovation programs to academic the provision of subsidies itself is fundamentally flawed and in dire need of an overhaul.
An influx of public funds and the creation of new technology directorates create an ideal time for all of us to assess whether the system is set up to help the community do its best work. We could heed the warnings of Vannevar Bush, the architect of our modern government research venture: the role of government is best suited to fund bold initiatives and empower companies and universities to do inspiring work.
Leverage ecosystem-wide data
Supporting the previous two goals is an underlying condition for success in the modern innovation economy: using systematic data to drive insights and transparency. How can we know which strategic bets can pay off? How can we judge which innovators do the best work? To this day, most innovation partnerships, especially those that bridge industry, academia and/or government, are among the ‘usual suspects’. Why? Because even industry leaders and senior officials don’t have good information about what’s happening in the long tail beyond the brand name players.
Still, if you ask leadership at leading companies, grant agencies or research institutions, “what is the future impact of your current innovation portfolio?” you get either educated guesses, or roaring, or polite shrugs. Why? Because very few organizations have gathered the extensive data sets and analytics capabilities to provide clear answers. If the US wants to achieve moonshots and lead the world in innovation, everyone has to do better. Fortunately, the data does exist, and a growing cohort of businesses have gathered extensive big data sets and AI-driven analytics capabilities with the horsepower to generate fundamental insights at every stage of the US innovation pipeline. But institutions and businesses need to be ready to take advantage of these burgeoning benefits and get started. Across the innovation economy, output and quality will improve as organizations gain the insights needed for strategic decision-making and build the transparency needed for a level and competitive playing field among innovators.
This is not the time to sit on the sidelines; the new superpower competition for technological supremacy is already underway. We are entering a new one golden age of innovation, in which the need for R&D will increase in all technology categories and industries. In addition, none of the above issues can be unilaterally addressed by the federal government, even if it tried. Rather, they are imperatives of society as a whole. And the surrounding incentives are already shifting in favor of these requirements — for academic leaders, industry executives and policymakers alike. Strategic innovation and technological development are becoming increasingly important in all sectors and it is in everyone’s interest to anticipate the changing environment and act proactively. Fortunately, this is also in the interest of America and the world, and consistent with the strategic goals of the CHIPS Act.
Robert Lowe is the co-founder and CEO of Wellspring, a provider of web-based software systems for research management and technology commercialization.