Improving Science and Technology Innovation in the United States
PDE staff were on hand
for a forum on improving U.S. science and technology innovation and
investment hosted by the Brookings Institution
on June 8. Our report of the event
The United States is falling
behind. For the past 50 years, the nation has led the world in
science and technology innovation, but now there are signs that the
country is slipping. For instance, last year was the first time non-U.S.
more patents than
Americans. The U.S. is also lagging behind other countries in
the percent of GDP spent on research and development.
To address these concerns, the Brookings Institution’s
inaugural A. Alfred Taubman Forum brought together leaders from government,
higher education, and business to discuss the nation’s next steps
After opening remarks by William
Antholis and Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, Aneesh Chopra,
U.S. Chief Technology Officer discussed the role of technology in government
and the necessity of staying with the times. He characterized the difference
between consumer culture and government culture as the difference between
“there’s an app for that” and “there’s a form for that,”
emphasizing the need for a shift in the government to embrace more of
a consumer culture mentality in adapting to new technology and ideas.
This need has spurred several government initiatives including the i6 Challenge (a $12 million innovation competition),
Health 2.0 Developer Challenge
(a grassroots, data-powered movement, bringing together health and technology
professionals for the sake of innovation), and the NHIN Direct Initiative (to promote simple, effective, secure
sharing of health information).
Vivek Kundra, Federal Chief
Information Officer, discussed the Obama administration’s efforts
to foster a more open government through accountability, transparency,
and public participation. As part of the push for openness, the
administration created an online “dashboard” so citizens could see how their
tax dollars were being spent. They also created data.gov a site that strives to make public
data available to everyone. Kundra noted the benefit of having
a platform like data.gov is that it allows others to create content.
He used the example of Apple’s App Store, whose value lies in harnessing
the innovative power of the public.
Phil Weiser, Senior Advisor
to the Director for Technology and Innovation, echoed the importance
of bringing ideas into the government from outside, using the example
of how Facebook games harness user participation. He also highlighted
the government’s Smart Grid technology as a measure for energy efficiency.
Ruth Simmons, the President
of Brown University, mentioned the slipping competitiveness of the U.S.
in science and technology. She called for an overhaul of engineering
curricula across the country, emphasizing the need to get rid of the
“weeding-out process” typical of engineering programs and instead
instill a culture of nurture. Additionally, she mentioned that
scientists often find themselves hindered or discouraged altogether
by policy and bureaucracy.
Eva Feldman, Director of the
A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute discussed the Foundation’s
commitment to seeking out innovative, high-risk, high-reward medical
research to fund. She expressed the value of an entrepreneurial
mindset and venture-capital-style investments for medical innovation.
Michael Holston, Executive
Vice President and General Counsel of Hewlett Packard, explained that
innovation brings benefits but also creates privacy issues. He
mentioned a shift towards cloud computing, which will mean more interconnectivity
and information sharing. According to Holston, that sort of environment
means that the gap between consumer knowledge and privacy protections
needs to be closed.
Richard Howard, Deputy Chief
Technologist of NASA, expressed the need for NASA to embrace risk and
encourage early-stage innovation. He said they need to encourage
more of a creative culture where failure, rather than being avoided,
is accepted as a necessary step towards success. Further, he highlighted
spending for NASA as part of a broader national goal of spending for
science and technology innovation.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.),
Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, discussed
the COMPETES Act (which he originally introduced) and the need for the
U.S. to be competitive in science and technology. He called research
and development spending the beginning of a loop because it would lead
to innovation, which would lead to revenue, which would allow more R&D
spending. He mentioned the nation’s dependence on foreign oil
and the danger of having the same thing happen with technology if appropriate
action is not taken. He also discussed the importance of bringing
women and minorities into technical fields, calling this the simplest
measure because it involves such a vast, relatively untapped source.
Finally, he said that, in terms of science and technology, the U.S.
government needs to stop talking and act.
Judging from the speakers,
the government has taken some important strides to embrace entrepreneurial
innovation, but there is still plenty of work ahead.
For more views presented at the event, access the transcript, here.
[Reported by Yaphi Berhanu; edited by Cristina Fernandez]