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The New, Costly Things

Promoting Inventions Is a Federal Tradition, but It’s Not an Easy Sell

Jeff Topping/Getty Images
A Border Patrol agent uses a laser system to scan fingerprints at a detention center in Douglas, Ariz.

Last year’s 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser was a cause for celebration in the scientific community and sparked a yearlong “Laserfest” commemoration. But it also won some notice in Washington — in part because the laser resulted from research funded by a government grant in the 1950s. Science advocates on Capitol Hill won adoption of a congressional resolution noting the anniversary. President Obama said the laser “brought economic benefits unimagined at the start of the process.”

Indeed, at first, the invention was only of interest to physicists. It was “a cute thing; every physicist was thrilled by it,” recalls Michigan Republican Vern Ehlers, who earned his doctorate in physics the same year as the invention and pushed the commemorative measure as one of his final acts before retiring after serving 17 years in the House. Today, however, lasers are ubiquitous, found in everyday objects as diverse as DVD players, grocery store price scanners and tattoo-removal equipment.

The government grant was a few hundred thousand dollars at most, a relatively small investment even by 1950s standards, Ehlers noted at a March conference at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank. “No one else would have put money into it. Hardly any business could imagine any use of it.”

In their celebration was also a subtle warning. Major technological advances — the lasers of the future — often originate as inventions with little obvious commercial use. Getting those raw, largely unformed technologies from America’s laboratories and garages into the hands of everyday consumers takes money — and lots of it. Businesses focused on the short-term bottom line aren’t always willing to foot the bill, and private sector financiers of potentially innovative breakthroughs can be a fickle breed. That means the U.S. government is often pressed to step into the void.

But while governments from Sweden to China are pouring their money into research and development of nanotechnology, medical devices and clean-energy innovations, many in the business and technology communities ask whether the innovations of the future — like the flat-panel televisions and fuel-efficient cars that have surged into vogue in the past decade — will be developed more regularly overseas, and not in the United States.

That’s because the federal institutions long charged with helping shepherd such inventions into the mainstream have been under constant scrutiny for years, as part of a broader battle over what the government’s role should be in steering investment and innovation. The process of reauthorizing the America Competes Act last year, for instance, was not simple.

And even as Obama asks, as he did in this year’s State of the Union address, for a “level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race,” those institutions have prominent places on the chopping block at a time of intense congressional interest in cutting discretionary domestic spending.

“How do we support America’s spirit of innovation while being realistic that the federal government cannot sustain our current level of spending?” Arkansas Republican John Boozman asked at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing last month on federal support for research and development.

“The answer,” the freshman senator offered, “is that we must prioritize our spending in a manner that gets the biggest bang for the taxpayer’s buck. We have to prioritize fundamental, basic research. And we have to make sure that our previous federal investments do not go to waste.”

Bridging the 'Valley'

The question of how government fosters technological prowess also comes at a time of great economic uncertainty. The last financial crisis and recession have dried up the credit and venture capital funding that helped fuel innovation in recent decades. It’s left a so-called valley of death when it comes to the financing needed to connect inventors with the firms and the additional research funds needed to get products to market.

And it has left groups such as the Information Technology and Innovation Forum, along with lawmakers such as Democratic
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, pushing for legislation and for public-private partnerships that would get private financing back into the game.

The defense sector was long the driver of the United States’ greatest technological advances, from the aerospace industry to the Internet. But in recent decades, Congress and the president have tried to create programs, like the Advanced Technology Program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to help promote the development of commercial applications.

And financing has been a partisan issue for years now, as with many other aspects of innovation policy. While Democrats are more apt to see a government role in getting new technologies to market, many Republicans are reluctant to be seen picking winners and losers. They support basic research but don’t want to make decisions about commercialization.

It’s a common debate when it comes to the National Science Foundation, which has recently supported projects in nanoelectronics, flu-virus prevention and technology to deal with the effect that sunspots have on communication technology. At a committee hearing last month, Chairman Ralph Hall of the House Science Committee noted that the agency’s “investments have yielded bar codes, the sign language dictionary, MRIs and Google.” Yet the Texas Republican expressed concern about the White House’s proposal to increase the NSF budget by 13 percent. “I also remain very concerned that the administration continues to place a greater emphasis on specific applied research areas at these agencies whose core missions are and should remain basic, fundamental research.”

In the 1990s, House Republicans repeatedly tried to abolish the Advanced Technology Program. When Democrats retook the House in 2007, they subsumed the program into the broader initiative — including other federal research and education financing — called America Competes. That law was reauthorized in 2010 for three years but only after a messy floor fight in the House, dominated by deficit concerns.

The legislation has broadened many basic and applied science programs, particularly through established channels at the NSF and NIST. The initiative also promotes regional innovation “clusters” — regional consortia that help foster links between research, academia and business at the state and local levels, where so much activity happens. Clusters are a priority for innovation activists.

The current downward pressure on funding comes after the NSF and NIST have won recent budgetary increases — including money in the 2009 economic stimulus law — and are seeking big boosts for next year as part of the president’s broader push to increase American competitiveness.

But like many other domestic programs that receive discretionary spending, science agencies might not see much better than a freeze of current funding levels.

More Than Just Money

Innovation also is one of the issues at play as Congress debates an overhaul of the U.S. patent system, an effort that has drawn major lobbying from small inventors, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers’ associations and technology giants such as Google.

Following Senate passage of a version of the bill last month, House Republicans are working on their own proposal, and one of the major concerns is that weakening patent rights would undermine innovation.

“We want thousands and thousands of inventors — not just inventors who work for big corporations — thousands of inventors who have their rights,” Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington said on the Senate floor this month.

The urgency comes as countries in Asia and Latin America catch up economically, and as European exporters such as Germany grow even more competitive. The United States has been synonymous with major technological advances for more than a century, and those developments have long increased the productivity of the American workforce and economy.

Advocates such as Ehlers warn that while spending restraint in Washington is a political necessity, lawmakers must come to grips with the role that the federal government plays in fueling the people who may invent the next iPod — or the next laser.

“Lasers are a multi, multi, multibillion-dollar industry. You’d be astounded by how big it is,” Ehlers noted at the March conference. “All for an investment of a couple hundred thousand dollars from the federal government.”

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