On Monday, the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a white paper on A Strategy for Innovation: Driving Towards Sustainable Growth and Quality of Jobs. While some of its thoughts are decent enough, much of it illustrates why "government" and "innovation" are rarely compatible.
Sometimes things work out, usually when a government program such as DARPA is run by dedicated people who manage to stay below the political and interest group radar. But once "innovation" is outed, the results become fit for the Onion. Thus the strategy contains pork for every major interest group -- education, already lavishly funded with steadily worsening results, will get even more. Infrastructure of all kinds is part of the agenda -- roads, bridges, rail. Clean energy. Rural broadband - everyone must have 21st century connections. The government will train entrepreneurs (!!)
Three seems to be regarded as a lucky number. The strategy has three parts; the President wants to invest at least three percent of GNP in R&D; three key science agencies will have their budgets doubled; take three years to double the nation's supply of renewable energy; and so on. If there is any rationale for any of the goals or figures, it goes unstated.
There are no costs, no benefits, no trade-offs, no limits. Nothing about fossil fuels, which must remain the backbone of energy for decades, and of course nothing about nuclear energy! It is a wish list, not a strategy. It would be difficult to dream up a more effective way to stifle national innovation than to commandeer our resources to promote arbitrary plans which must be implemented by multiple bureaucracies.
Back in the real world: At a health care event a couple of months ago Billy Tauzin, head of Phrma, mentioned to former Majority Leader Dick Gephardt that data must be submitted to the FDA via truckloads of paper rather than in digital form, and that this is both wasteful and slow. Gephardt's response was that Congress is the agency that would have to fix this by allocating the resources, and Congress is very busy and much put upon by people asking for things, so one should really be sympathetic to its problems. He did not seem aware that his answer was ludicrous -- it was in essence that Congress should be allowed to be a bottleneck for everything because it has arrogated to itself control of everything, and that we should all shut up.
Tauzin noted that other nations all love pharmaceutical companies and keep asking "how can we build such as industry?" but even that rather broad hint was not enough to divert Gephardt from his Congress-centrism.
The OSTP strategy document envisions a leading government role in health IT. LOL! I propose that before being allowed to write a grand strategy on innovation, OSTP should be required to make a list of areas in which the government is acting as a drag on innovation -- and fix them. It can start with the FDA data issue. Then perhaps it can progress to more ambitious activities.
The funny thing is, the OSTP people are smart; they know all these problems as well as I do. But the dynamic of government has forced them to produce a distinctly weird document that no one of them would ever sign his or her name to as a serious intellectual product.
To repeat myself, we are increasingly government of the special interest, by the special interest, and for the special interest, and it simply cannot continue for much longer.