By Kevin E. Noonan --
George Will, conservative icon, wrote an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post last week extolling the virtues (and the necessities) of innovation and government support for it ("Rev the scientific engine").
He takes issue with some of his conservative brethren that, in view of what he terms the "excesses" of the various economic stimulus packages of the past few years, now oppose government expenditures that would support "innovation." What America needs is "internal improvements," he says, in the form of support for scientific and engineering research and education. He notes the decline in such support in the form of declining federal government support for research in engineering and the physical sciences, which dropped by more than 50% between 1970-1995 (which he characterizes as "America has been consuming its seed corn") and state support for science education, which was at its lowest levels since before Ronald Reagan was President before the economic meltdown at the end of the Bush administration. (Curiously he fails to mention that the American technological Renaissance occurred during the Clinton administration.) He also notes that countries like South Korea (38%) and China (47%) award a far higher percentage of their undergraduate degrees in science than does the U.S. (16%).
He argues that "[t]he prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas" in this century, as much as roads and canals were necessities earlier in our history. However, he sees a risk in an era of ("curdled") populism, that there will be political resistance to supporting the "elites" (at least scientific ones) that are responsible for the breakthrough discoveries that must be made for research to translate to economic benefits. This is because "[n]inety-nine percent of the discoveries are made by 1 percent of the scientists," he says, citing Nobel Laureate Julius Axelrod. As a consequence, as part of making intelligent, pro-prosperity choices, Mr. Will argues that Congressional Republicans should be "defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions -- corporations' research entities and research universities." This is because "[r]esearch, including in the biological sciences, that yields epoch-making advances requires time horizons that often are impossible for businesses, with their inescapable attention to quarterly results."
Along the way he cites Margaret Thatcher and Abraham Lincoln (who was, after all, a Republican), but most tellingly he cites Richard Levin from Yale for an important economic point: "Would Japan's growth have lagged since 1990 'if Microsoft, Netscape, Apple and Google had been Japanese companies'"? Culturally, the last twenty years have seen the world change from one in which everyone had a Walkman® to one where everyone has an iPod®, and where Amgen, Genentech, Biogen-Idec, and dozens of other U.S. companies drove the biotechnology revolution. Mr. Will credits investment for driving this prosperity, and in citing Lincoln he acknowledges (however tacitly) the importance of patents in supporting such investment. His point is not to defend the patent system but to support government support for research; unstated but nonetheless true is that one cannot thrive without the other.