Beyond the Endless Frontier

By and December 22, 2021

The American hallmark has always been its ingenuity, from the creation of the Internet to the rise of Silicon Valley. But for the last few decades, ingenuity has been on the decline: not because of a lack of genius but because of a failure of the marketplace to bring forward those new ideas in scientific knowledge, entrepreneurship, education, and, yes, movies.  

We need more ideas that push the “Endless Frontier” of science and reach wide-scale commercialization, like the mRNA breakthroughs of late. The debates or implementation of once-in-a-generation investments into the U.S. innovation ecosystems — the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and in-conference U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) — should therefore pay attention to three key lessons learned from the last generation. 

First, our nation’s greatest asset is its ability to develop, attract, and retain the world’s most talented individuals. Imagine an America where the development of 21st century science & technology was spread from the coasts to the heartland. Our nation and more importantly our people would be firing on all cylinders, with more people generating new ideas and more launching points for those ideas to take off. Regional innovation endeavors, like the ongoing $1 billion Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge and potential Department of Commerce’s Regional Technology Hubs and National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Accelerators, are seeking to expand the geography of innovation but require public buy-in to succeed in the long-term. 

Equally if not more important is supporting immigrants in driving entrepreneurship forward. One quarter of all American startups — and one-half of our nation’s billion-dollar startups — were founded by immigrants. Still in addition to overcoming a host of obstacles in their home countries, foreign-born entrepreneurs must endure a long, convoluted, and highly politicized immigration process in the United States. As rivalry partners like China have aimed to do, the United States would do well to secure its position as a beacon for the world’s talent by making it easier on immigrants to arrive on our shores. 

Second, America must experiment with new, more risk-oriented approaches to R&D and market failures. In record time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created stealth tech, the Internet, and other applied-tech to meet the moment of the Cold War. Today, peer and rival competition demands a similar imagination of our nation’s R&D ecosystem. We must pay attention to the revolutionary potential of ARPA-Health and ARPA-Infrastructure, while supporting even more nascent efforts Focused Research Organizations and novel approaches to science funding like fast grants and translational science lottery programs. Each of these new structures represents a variant of an “embedded autonomy” approach to R&D, wherein the government describes outcome-oriented goals and measures progress while mission-driven organizations take disruptive risks for paradigm-shifting innovation. 

Similarly, the role of the government as a buyer and driver of innovation was made clear by the Advanced Market Commitments for vaccines in Operation Warp Speed. Several other innovative procurement techniques have been demonstrated to solve market failures, from challenge-based acquisitions of reusable spaceships to milestone based payments in the public-private partnership between NASA and SpaceX. Agencies largely have the authority to create whole “marketplaces of outcomes” and spawn entirely new industries, from climate-solutions technologies to quantum computing. 

Third, we must appreciate that both research and manufacturing are essential for maintaining America’s innovation edge. The tight relationship between R&D and the learning-by-building phase of manufacturing was demonstrated by the loss of U.S. competitiveness in Solar panels, semiconductors, electric vehicles and other critical technologies. This will continue as there is a dearth in advanced manufacturing options in the United States. Startups in semiconductor, biotechnology, climate-solutions technology, and quantum industries are increasingly producing cutting edge technologies — and establishing innovation ecosystems — outside the United States. When talking about U.S. innovation and competitiveness for the next century, we must pay attention not only to basic science but to ways of financing small- and medium-sized manufacturers in demonstrating, adopting, and training a workforce to use advanced production technologies.

In short, America needs more ideas that last but we have a few that might help get us there.