I wear contact lenses and I am now a member of the presbyopic culture -- bifocals. I am so nearsighted that I couldn’t get from my house to my office (a 100 yard trek) without the inventions of modern society. But the more I read, the more I am convinced that our myopia extends beyond eyesight.
A social psychological myopia occurs when a society is buffeted by the winds of change, and when countervailing forces are good at manipulating the collective sight, we become lost in the fog of confusion and half-truth. By all indicators, our nation is currently in the midst of a huge period of social myopia. We are confused; we have no far vision; and we cannot see our way out of the mess we have created.
Politics aside (please, let’s put it aside), I believe innovation is the unique American trait that everyone should bet on for our salvation. Innovation is the one area where our national vision is clear -- the only thing we disagree on is how we’re going to pay for it.
Let’s face it; those of us in the design engineering world think we are pretty creative. We solve problems; we are tasked with innovation; we occasionally invent; and we frequently problem solve in cool and surprising ways. In general, we believe that innovation in this country comes from the likes of us. But are we myopic as well? Are garage inventors still doing the lion’s share of innovation? I think not. While I don’t have rock hard stats, it does seem the age of the garage inventor is largely past.
Are corporations the foothold for a great leap forward? The number of patent filings by corporations is certainly staggering, but we all know the truth. Corporate American would much rather grow organically (acquiring innovation) than spend dollars on risky R&D. One great example is the slow demise of pharmaceutical R&D. Over the past 20 years, the average spending by Big Pharma has dropped from nearly 50 percent of earnings to as low as seven percent. In general, basic research done by a corporation is a long forgotten footnote to history.
The truth is our innovations are coming from much bigger efforts.
Most of the inventors of the early 20th century had easy pickings in a non-technical world. But as the low hanging fruit disappeared from vines, simple improvement inventions became harder, true breakthroughs became rarer, and each began to require incredible technical depth and focus. Where can you find that depth? Where can you find that focus? Most importantly, where can you find that patient money? Corporations are without patience -- and money for that matter. Venture capitalists and angel investors have the money, but lack the patience. The remaining garage inventors who have the patience can only dream of money.
We are left with university researchers with specialized knowledge, and places like Pacific Northwest National Labs. We have military facilities like the Navy research labs at Carderock, NAVAIR Florida, and the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center. We also have medical schools and research hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins. Each is profoundly creative.
We must not forget that NASA has been an incredibly prodigious generator of innovation for 50 years, as well as the granddaddy of great R&D sponsors, the Defense Advanced Research Project Administration (DARPA).
Recently, DARPA announced that it lost the hypersonic vehicle in a test over the Pacific. The Hypersonic Test Vehicle, HTV-2, was supposed to fly under power for 20 minutes and then glide down to an atoll. The flight lasted 12 minutes before DARPA lost it -- when something loses its balance at Mach 20, there won’t be much left to find.
What was most interesting was the cacophony of comments regarding the usual supply side stupidity. Comments on how government should not be spending taxpayers’ hard earned money on research that private corporations could perform. The two positions should be addressed within the realm of reality of where real innovation comes from.
What about DARPA’s failure rate? An honest evaluation of what DARPA has brought to this country is impossible, especially since I suspect much of what they have seeded and brought to fruition is hidden behind the black curtains of secrecy. The products that have made it to the other side of the curtain have been staggering.
Current research includes complete bionic limbs, autonomous cars, and exoskeletons. Each of these projects take an enormous amount of money to simply discover fundamental principles, let alone bring viable product to the market. Remember, that’s not even their job.
I suppose DARPA’s detractors are so experienced in new technology development that they find fault in any failure in early phase development and use it as an excuse to talk about taxpayers funding risky business.
Failure is the best indicator of the appropriate overreaching. It is essential to push the envelope in order to establish it. Every DARPA success is likely to have started with some seriously risky stuff. Failure is to be expected in these early stages of product development. It is, in fact, to be encouraged.
Now, DARPA is trying to bring hypersonic transport to reality, and the detractors are trying to tell us that DARPA has no place in that arena. If not DARPA, then who? I can’t imagine many venture capitalists or private equity folks willing to invest billions in the up-front work that is required for this sort of risky experiment to pay off in the next 50 years.
As a new product developer who just spun off a substantial business, I can understand the time, money, and effort it takes to mature a technology to the point of economic value.
The answer to my initial question of where revolutionary innovation comes from is obvious. It comes from you and me, through our tax dollars. The best place for government to participate with our dollars is in the realm of high-risk, high-reward endeavors. This is how we keep ahead; this is how we rebuild our economy.
The next time someone tells you that the government has no place funding innovation, think about what these institutions have produced and ask two things: Where would we be without these efforts? What company would have provided the long term, patient money for the entire process -- from the fundamental science to the final commercialization?
Clear vision requires patience, money, deep intelligence, and will. If we lose sight of that, we are at risk for a greater fall from grace than the one our nation has already taken.