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Obama Wants the U.S. to Innovate -- but He Has Things Backward

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about more federal spending on IT and an innovation imperative. We are supposed to see "our generation's Sputnik moment," when the U.S. and Soviet Union raced in the 1950s and 1960s to dominate space.

As good as the call to arms may make people feel, the analogy is off. Whether calling for increased training for math and science teachers, high-speed wireless broadband, eased restrictions on research visas, or taking on the innovation of China and India, the administration and its supporters are getting something fundamentally wrong. Innovation doesn't come because you prepare the ground. You prepare the ground because you're already busy creating something new.

Set the goal

In the space race, both the U.S. and the USSR had a tangible goal: Get into space and keep the other side from establishing an overhead military platform. That specific imperative drove people to become innovative. They had an important problem to solve, and that caused them to go beyond their usual ways of thinking to accomplish what had been considered impossible. To that end, both sides poured enormous sums of money -- government spending that would be difficult to sell to the public today.

In the process of getting into space, the efforts either threw off innovations or, in the cases of such technologies as Teflon and Velcro, gave high-profile use that helped supercharge their marketing. Suddenly, there was a need to be good in math, engineering, and science -- because the public perceived it as a life and death matter.

Obama's speech, though, inverted the concept of innovation. The U.S. isn't a "nation of Google and Facebook" because it was good for international competitive standing. Those companies exist because private individuals saw an opportunity and wanted to achieve something new.

Give people and business reasons to achieve

It's fine to note that government funding and support planted the seeds for the Internet and GPS. But both started as Department of Defense projects to achieve something definite -- let government computers talk to each other, let troops know their exact position. When we push to improve math and science education in the abstract, we put too much emphasis on standardized tests only to see progress fall behind other parts of the world.

Many who are well-suited to such pursuits now go into financial services because, for them, that's where the money is, in more ways than one. Obama said:

We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.
Instead of asking for someone to assemble the teams, the country needs to define the Apollo projects as an expression of a pressing need. And those projects must be impossible tasks that no one in his or her right mind would think possible. Like going to the moon. Don't ask for energy independence by 2035. That is forever. Demand it in a decade and put all the resources behind to make business sit up and take notice. Because energy independence is a matter of life and death.

Pick a few Sputniks

Want wireless broadband? Than make it a national priority to have broadband in every home in the next ten years, and push for the new technologies that can make it happen quickly and cheaply. Or choose to defeat some dread disease and then put the enormous biomedical infrastructure to work. The only times the prefix "bio" came up in the address were in the words biofuels and bioterrorism. Look at what happened when the country wanted to cure polio.

Drive industry and let companies realize that they need to attract the scientists and engineers of the future away from the financial sector. Make college truly affordable for the hundreds of millions who will never be millionaires, but who offer the biggest pool of talent. Not a tax credit, but real support for those with talent. A $10,000 tax credit for four years of college is a nice contribution, but it's hardly a mainstay.

All of this takes money and requires businesses to stop looking for the cheapest way of developing the next widget and politicians to agree that some things are worth paying for. It's a Herculean task, like cleaning the Augean Stables. And that's why there had better be a compelling and driving reason to undertake it, because otherwise it will never happen.


Image: courtesy, the White House