Monday, September 29, 2008

U.S. must rediscover innovation

U.S. must rediscover innovation
Deepak Seth • September 29, 2008

Innovation has been the lifeblood of the American economy and the American way of life. America's success has been built on the model of inventing stuff, branding it, manufacturing it efficiently and then reaping the profits from a global market.

Now the innovation engine seems to be slowing down. There are some reasons:

  • Science and technology are taking a back seat in a country distracted by other issues — wars, natural disasters and economic crises.
  • We've missed the bus with key emerging global trends — climate change, stem cell research, alternate energy. Europe was faster off the block and now, as the rest of the world buys in, they reap the profits.
  • In a culture of the "cool," science and math are viewed as "uncool." That shrinks the talent pool from which the innovators of tomorrow can appear. Funding for science and math education is not at desirable levels.
  • Post-9/11 travel restrictions, global uncertainties and the growing prosperity of China and India have reduced the inflow of scientific talent to the United States for higher education and research.

The large-scale shift of manufacturing capabilities from the U.S. has created a disconnect between the lab and the shop floor. The effects of that are now starting to show. Most U.S. companies view themselves as "bundlers''—bundling together goods and services developed and built elsewhere. Research and development is viewed as another process ready to be off-shored.
The next president needs to re-establish U.S. preeminence as the innovation hub of the world. While bailouts of sinking financial firms can provide a short-term solution to economic crises, a focus on innovation can leverage the inherent resilience and ingenuity of the American people to restore the energy and creativity of a free-market economy. Here are some suggestions:

  • Redirect financial institutions to focus on what they used to do best: financing innovation, weeding out the crazy ideas from the true blockbusters.
  • Launch a big national initiative like the Manhattan Project, Apollo moon program and Human Genome project. The spinoffs from these programs created much of the technology we see in our homes today.
  • Pay bigger incentives for U.S. corporations for R&D. Reward investments made at home in the U.S.
  • Make a big push for science and math education in schools and for more academic scholarships at colleges.
  • Have a finger in every pie. Offer incentives to corporations and universities to invest in technologies focused on the global marketplace rather than just the U.S. market.

"Innovate or perish" is the new mantra.

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