Like many who grew up with America’s space program, I am experiencing deep pangs of nostalgia with the last flight of the space shuttle. I remember watching the black-and-white TV in our den in 1961 as President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. That got me hooked on space flight. I was riveted by the scientists, engineers, and astronauts—all of them bold risk takers and doers—who were working day and night designing, testing, and flying the Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo spacecraft. To feel part of all this excitement, I was building homemade rockets in our basement and lost more than a few brave mice in suborbital flights on the high-school football field.
I went on to earn degrees in aeronautical engineering in the ‘70s, and even designed software for the space shuttle while a graduate student at MIT. What I didn’t realize during the push to the moon in the ‘60s was the incredible effort that was mounted among our government, industry, and academia to develop the multitude of innovations needed to meet the goal: new propulsion, communications, and computer systems; materials to withstand the pressure and heat of flight; life-support systems; guidance and control systems; and much more. Six months before the deadline JFK had set, I along with a billion other people around the globe watched as Neil Armstrong jumped backward from the landing pad of the LEM onto the moon.
Fast-forward more than 40 years to 2011. In January’s State of the Union speech, President Obama issued his own urgent entreaty to the country: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” This time I wasn’t watching on TV, but rather saw the challenge come across my laptop screen as a tweet from @whitehouse. This historic tweet concluded, “We have to make America the best place on earth to do business.”
Not quite the dramatic impact of the Kennedy challenge, but I was glad to see it anyway, especially the “out-innovate” part. Everyone agrees that innovation is key to solving the many challenges we face as a country, from health care to education to the environment, and is fundamental to restoring economic growth and prosperity. But I would put it a slightly different way. We must find a way to rebuild the “innovation infrastructure” in this country.
The problem is not that Americans aren’t as inherently innovative as ever—we are. And the level of interest among Americans in the process of innovation—determining the best recipes to make it happen—has been skyrocketing over the past few years. For example, the number of times the word “innovation” appeared in Google news stories has increased by approximately a factor of five from Obama’s inauguration to today. Google the term “innovation” and you'll get 342 million hits, approximately half the 676 million hits that “Obama” generates. Search on Amazon for books about innovation and you'll get 44,875, just about half the 92,589 books about sex. And according to hashtags.org, #innovate is trending about the same rate as #deficit.
Our problem is that the system is failing our citizens. The “seed corn” of innovation—creative ideas, fundamental discoveries, and novel inventions—is no longer being generated in this country at nearly the rate it was before. Viable “seed corn” requires an innovation infrastructure in which bright minds are provided the resources and freedom to create and invent according to their passions and curiosities, to take bold risks, and even to fail. Such an innovation infrastructure thrived in the U.S. in the late 20th century as a synergistic collaboration among the institutions of academia, government, and industry. It led to the innovations that put Americans on the moon, and to the personal computer, the Internet, and the era of genomic medicine.
Tragically, in the 21st century our innovation infrastructure is completely broken.
The willingness to take risks and a longer-term view has virtually disappeared from our institutions. Large corporations, driven by quarterly earnings and Wall Street, have almost completely shuttered their basic, longer-term research programs. Bright young academic researchers have learned to take the safe route in their proposals for funding by government agencies, knowing that truly radical and risky ideas are unlikely to be approved by a panel of peer reviewers. And despite the current wave of enthusiasm in Silicon Valley over the latest set of Internet IPOs, venture capitalists are no longer willing to take the long-shot risks they took in the past.
So, as the presidential contest begins to heat up, here is the message to both parties. Americans are ready and willing to embrace the goal of once again leading the world in innovation. This could be the moon shot for the next decade that unifies our country. However, we are at a tremendous disadvantage unless the innovation infrastructure of this country is rebuilt. This requires a new collaboration among government, industry, and academia—one that is suited to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, and that restores the bold risk taking and action orientation of earlier times.
We can do this. Otherwise, I am afraid that the current wave of enthusiasm for innovation in this country will amount to no more than a bumper sticker for the digital age, fading from sight in the rearview mirrors of a dozen other countries.