Innovation depends on a knowledge ecosystem

Do you like the internet? How about using your phone to find your way through a strange city? Have you or someone close to you avoided painful invasive surgery because of MRI? All of these innovations started with federally funded research.  All of them (and many others) eventually have produced a complex ecosystem of inventors, developers and users. In turn, this ecosystem creates more beneficial innovation. But, nothing will grow without that initial seed provided by federally funded research. And, as most of us know, support for a vigorous and robust science and engineering environment is at an all-time low.  Sadly for us, the consequences are severe and potentially long lasting.

The “roots” of innovation

Policy makers often say small businesses are the engine of our economy. I prefer my ecosystem analogy, but okay-the basic point is true. But, as we all know, engines require fuel to do anything positive. So-what’s the fuel? This is a critical question.

We can think of innovation is the translation of basic knowledge into products and processes that people value. However, innovation generally requires something novel. While everybody wants to found the next Google, there would be no Google without the internet. More importantly,  there would be no internet without basic research. Thus, government funded research helped create an entire scientific, technological and cultural ecosystem. Significantly,  nobody imagined the internet and all its interacting products when the first email was sent. Understanding that this is a connected system reinforces how initial investments in knowledge create a self-sustaining collection of actors that depend upon one another. To go back to my ecosystem analogy, the roots of innovation consist mostly of the work that takes place in universities and governmental labs.

Knowledge ecosystems amplify benefits

As even the above anecdote illustrates, business innovation depends on a sufficient level of knowledge to produce an economic outcome. Investment is risky and business does not generally like risk. Thus, the garden must be properly tended for it to become vibrant and economically beneficial. For instance, many studies have highlighted the role that NIH research has had on drug discovery. It is estimated that 20-25% of innovative drugs originate from government funded research, and publicly funded research accounts for every major vaccine produced over the last 25 years. Each dollar of such basic research then drives another $0.70 in additional industrial investment, which then confers further benefits.  The total societal return from this spending is at the very least 4:1 and may be as high as 30:1. Like natural ecosystems, knowledge ecosystems often become more productive as they mature.

It’s the ideology, stupid

Accordingly, we must be alarmed at the present intellectual and policy climate.  The priorities of our national ..leader…accelerate a bad trend. Governmental support for R&D is roughly 20% less than in 2004 when adjusted for inflation. Importantly, the current budget calls for enormous cuts to NIH, NSF, and national labs  It’s going to be hard to develop a sustainable economy when research such as this is on the chopping block.

But, the problems we have with dollars hide a deeper problem of ideology. How can  a vibrant scientific community exist when our leaders embrace science denial, and reject well tested scientific concepts like evolution or human-induced climate change? Will US scientists feel empowered when our public officials claim that our most important discoveries about the world are the result of a satanic influence, or that faith will solve our environmental challenges? I think we’d all suggest the answers are no, and no.

Already we see signs that the current situation is harmful. For instance, US may not be driving the world’s R&D for much longer. Software engineers that have powered advances in AI and robotics are choosing Canada over the US, a trend fueled in part by our hateful stance on immigrants (more pernicious ideology!). While top scientists have renounced their citizenship and left the US, China has rapidly increased its research spending. More importantly perhaps, is that China is now poised to overtake the US in several fields. Given the level of commitment (in time, energy, and money) keep develop new ideas, discouraging the next generation from pursuing careers in science will have long lasting repercussions.

Knowledge is part of the commons

A vibrant society is a balance between the private sphere and the public sphere. The former allows for individual choice and the personal freedom to express ourselves in creative and novel ways. But, in conjunction with this is a public sphere of common resources and heritage we all draw upon for both survival and inspiration.  Examples such as clean air and water come easily to mind as things that serve both functions. But even as we draw on biological ecosystems, we draw on knowledge ecosystems created by publicly funded research. As for our natural ecosystems, we’re doing a poor job of management, which ought to greatly concern us all. As we all know, the forest dies when you cut off the roots.

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