Government as innovatorJesse Jenkins (MIT) and Matthew Stepp (Center for Clean Energy Innovation) are among a number of policy analysts who have called for a “tax and invest” strategy to combat global warming. That is: A modest tax on carbon emissions would be invested in government research, development, and innovation-promotion programs to commercialize new alternative energy technology.

But in a recent article I have argued there are at least four reasons to question whether typical government technology programs would be as cost-effective an investment as Jenkins and others claim:

1. The government role in innovation is neither necessary nor sufficient. Of the 20 most important inventions of the 20th century listed by Time magazine, only four came from government initiatives or received significant government support.

2. Government research and innovation activities often follow rather than lead private initiatives. Robert Goddard pioneered development of rockets long before the U.S. government was interested. And the Wright brothers succeeded in developing a successful flying machine independently while government-backed efforts failed.

3. The failures of government R&D and innovation efforts are not innocuous or harmless. Among the notorious cases: The U.S. government subjected human guinea pigs to radiation and LSD experiments. More recently, Pentagon bureaucracy delayed the development of Ebola treatments.

4. Nothing fails like success. Even the supposed successes of government attempts to foment innovation often come with unintended consequences or side effects that dilute or even overwhelm their benefits.

With poor prospects for more government R&D funding, the focus should shift, first, toward open science and open innovation. One example: Foldit engaged a quarter of a million users to decipher the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme in a few weeks, solving a problem that had stumped scientists for a decade.

Second, the emphasis needs to shift from centralized, exclusive, government-directed institutions to open networks that link talented individuals in both industrialized and developing countries as full partners in creative collaborations.


Please share your thoughts on whether government can be counted on as an effective engine of innovation. Can energy technology innovation be accelerated without more government funding? How can the productivity of investments in energy R&D and innovation be improved?

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