As a business consultant I am often charged with making my client’s company more “innovative”. Every CEO wants to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos, for obvious reasons. You’ll get no argument out of me that these people and many others like them have created incredible and incredibly useful products and services that have brought them well deserved wealth and fame. But I often hear from business leaders, especially in these times of government belt tightening, disparaging remarks about the taxpayer money governments spend on basic research and development. As a business person and a science aficionado I find this equal parts amusing and disturbing. They are often under the mistaken assumption that the private sector is the ultimate driver of innovation. The truth is the public-private partnership for research and development that arose in this country in the latter parts of the last century built the foundation of our modern economy.
Our economic, technological and social achievements owe a significant debt of gratitude to the basic research of the government and private sector scientists and engineers that came before us. A recent article on New Scientist does an excellent job of poking holes in the myth that public investment in research and innovative small businesses leads to naught. The central premise is that the state can serve as the lead risk taker by performing research in areas where the private sector can not envision the future profits to be had from the resulting innovation. Also public contribution to research for the sake of economic and social advancement does not naturally align with private sector profit motives is structurally necessary.
An excellent example of this is the public-private partnership in the evolution of aerospace technology. The Wright Brothers, operating as the private sector, mastered powered flight in 1905. Initially powered flight was not commercially viable but it was quickly put to use by the public sector for military purposes during World War I. During this time many basic advances in construction, training and flight safety were made, laying the ground work for commercial viability. After the war, the Golden Age of Aviation led to significant private sector refinement of the safety and reliability of aircraft with obvious benefits to the public sector’s military efforts. During World War II many new basic discoveries and innovations were made including the Laminar Flow airfoil, production of higher octane fuels, and jet and rocket propulsion. After the war these new technologies were further refined to their present state by continued public and private sector investment.
A reverse example, where the initial investment was made by the public sector and further refined by the private sector, is obviously the internet. It is well known that DARPA funded development behind TCP, the fundamental technology that makes the Internet possible, and Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web while working at the publicly funded CERN. But it was the private investment from companies as well as private contributions from individual technologist all over the world that has made the Internet what it is today.
We all see further because we stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us, both publicly and privately funded. Turning a blind eye to the innovation that comes out of our public investment in basic research and development will always leave you at a disadvantage in the innovation space. Advocating for turning it off entirely disadvantages us all.