Innovation: Crucial to Our Future

Look around you. If you're like me, your life is filled with technology and tools that help you work, live, and play. New devices like iPhones, social networks like Facebook, "breakthrough" pharmaceuticals, and sleek household products are all around us. It seems like innovation in many fields -- from Web 2.0 to personalized medicine -- is accelerating at a rapid pace in the United States, right?

Wrong. In fact, the underlying infrastructure of research, development, and application that produced these marvels -- as well as world-changing innovations like the Internet -- has drastically deteriorated in the U.S. in recent years. The decline of what I call our "Innovation Ecosystem" poses a grave threat to both the economic prosperity of our country and the security of our children's future. The state of innovation is a critical issue that should be getting more attention in the days leading up to the presidential election.

Leading-edge science and technology have been at the foundation of our country's economic growth for more than a century. Significant inventions like the personal computer, cell phones, and the Net have all driven major cycles of our economic growth. Today, more than ever, our role in the future depends on our ability to sustain a culture that supports and promotes the ability to innovate. Along with the rest of the world, the U.S. faces major challenges -- climate change, national security, dependence on oil, and the need for affordable health care -- that threaten our future. Each of these challenges also brings opportunities - if we give innovation the attention it deserves.

Innovation does not just happen. Like a garden, it must be actively nurtured. The once-groundbreaking technologies that today seem commonplace were all built on a strong and deep foundation of investments by business and government in our long-term growth.

In the course of writing my new book, Closing the Innovation Gap, I discovered that the mania for instant gratification that is killing innovation has spread from Wall Street to Washington to Silicon Valley, permeating our culture. Stockholders focus on short-term transactions at the expense of building for the future. Federal agencies like DARPA -- which financed the research I did in the early '70s at Stanford led by Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet -- now demand technologies that can be deployed within months to aid the war effort. Instead of educating our children to become inquisitive about the world around them and have respect for science, we drill them on standardized tests, while scientists are devalued as just another political special-interest group.

"Our culture is telling kids that science isn't cool -- particularly for girls," Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in the US, told me. "When we were growing up, our society put much more emphasis on the importance of science and math, so there was a cultural imperative that created a generation of scientists and engineers. Now that imperative is gone."

We are rapidly losing our advantage in the emerging global economy. Most of these marvelous new products and services, even the iPod, capitalized on pre-existing technologies. We are too focused on incremental innovations, to the detriment of truly disruptive breakthroughs. In the meantime, we are spending and creating value elsewhere, rather than investing in our growth.

There's a disease that afflicts trees called root rot. Infected trees eventually die, but for a long time, they appear to be healthy, with lots of branches and green leaves. Root rot is an apt metaphor for what has happened to America's Innovation Ecosystem as our planning horizons have become focused purely on making things better for today, this quarter, or this year -- with hardly any thought for the fate of future generations.

One of the most crucial roles of a nation's leaders is to foster the right environment for innovation through inspiration, wise funding, and smart policy. Instead, the country has been led into a quagmire of religious ideology and partisan bickering. Science does not belong to the right wing or the left, and the hijacking of science policy by ideologues has had a chilling effect on innovation. The curiosity and openness that helped define the American character have been replaced by fear and apathy. The national trust necessary to build alliances with the rest of the world is gone, along with our willingness to take the economic risks required to make significant breakthroughs.

Reviving sustainable innovation will require sweeping changes at all levels of society -- from the schoolroom, to the boardroom, to the hallways of our nation's capitol. This year will bring a welcome change at the top in Washington. But we need not only a new administration in the White House, we need a new kind of national leadership.

America is used to setting the global agenda, expecting everyone else to follow. Those days are over. Now new ideas travel around the world at the speed of light. Simply because a discovery occurs in a U.S. lab does not mean that we will be the sole beneficiary. A zero-sum view -- assuming that progress in the rest of the world is a loss for us -- only leads to more barriers and stifled possibilities.

As an entrepreneur, I learned early on that you don't need to be the biggest to lead, but you do need to be more agile and know how to leverage the resources around you. We must be prepared to compete with other countries for talent and investment while ensuring that they remain our allies. The rate of innovation is proportional to the level of collaboration and sharing.

As voters, we need to consider which candidates will have the vision, courage, and ability to rally the nation's resources and inspire innovation. That's the kind of leader we will need to reignite the economy and address the major challenges that we and our children will face in the coming decades.