Thursday, January 27, 2011

Innovation As An Innovation

On January 25, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union Address packed with references to innovation.  In fact, he mentioned "innovation" no fewer than nine times during his speech.  In each of his 2010 and 2009 Addresses, President Obama mentioned innovation only twice.  During his entire eight years as U.S. President, George W. Bush mentioned innovation quite sparingly in State of the Union Addresses:  twice each in 2006 and 2003.  Even technophile President William J. Clinton employed the word only four times in his two terms in office.  So, why is innovation suddenly so popular with President Obama?

There are a number of possible explanations for why innovation has caught the presidential, and national, Zeitgeist.  One reason is that technological innovation is closely associated with economic growth.  From Robert Solow's neoclassical growth model, which estimated that about four fifths of productivity gains stem from new technology, to Paul Romer's suggestion that investments in research and development may be particularly effective means of encouraging technological improvements, much modern economic thought recommends the promotion of innovation as an especially wise policy goal.

Another motivation is the fashionable fear that the United States is at risk from being overtaken by China, whose students (along with students from South Korea, Finland, Canada, and quite a few other countries) recently outperformed their American colleagues in science, mathematics, and other subjects in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment ("PISA").  The sensation caused several weeks ago by Amy Chua's publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she critiques the results of what she pejoratively terms "Western" parenting, tapped this Angst and found a gusher.

A third explanation may arise from a dawning realization that classical models of innovation may not be succeeding as well as they once did.  Witness the National Institutes of Health's new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences ("NCATS"), whose euphemistic goal, "to leverage science to bring new ideas and materials to the attention of industry by demonstrating their value," is a reaction to the worrying relative decline in the rate of discovery, development, and market-availability of new pharmaceutical drugs, coupled with a looming "patent cliff" off which many existing medicines are beginning to tumble.

Finally, the fruits of innovation, such as the iPad, the Nissan Leaf, and Roundup Ready alfalfa, are usually viewed as cool, compelling, and a welcome distraction from the distressing realities of slow economic growth and high unemployment.  Where the Romans had panem et circenses, one can now enjoy the latest update of Angry Birds.