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Obama & Innovation – First hundred days assessment

As President Obama reaches the first milestone of 100 days in office, many pundits are evaluating how he’s doing.  I don’t really care about most of these assessments which seem to be focused more on how Presidential he has been acting and not really looking at the substance of Obama’s actions and impact as President.  But since the President chose to deliver an address to the National Academy of the Sciences this week, it seems appropriate to ask how he’s doing when it comes to innovation.  With that in mind, here are my observations on two indicators: Obama’s speech to the NAS, and his a

As President Obama reaches the first milestone of 100 days in
office, many pundits are evaluating how he’s doing.  I don’t really
care about most of these assessments which seem to be focused more on
how Presidential he has been acting and not really looking at the
substance of Obama’s actions and impact as President.  But since the
President chose to deliver an address to the National Academy of the
Sciences this week, it seems appropriate to ask how he’s doing when it
comes to innovation.  With that in mind, here are my observations on
two indicators: Obama’s speech to the NAS, and his actions in response
to the economic situation (which have a direct impact on the National
innovation climate).

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In considering Obama’s speech, I am not going to critique his
delivery or choice of words.  My concern is the content (did he cover
the right issues given the audience), the substance (was there
appropriate depth in the treatment), and the underlying policy (can we
expect a positive outcome) of his remarks.

In the area of content, I have to give Obama an A-.  He really did
hit on several key issues that impact innovation: funding for basic
research, R&D credits for private enterprise, education, and data
privacy.  There are other innovation related topics he could have
address, but you can only hit so many topics in any one given speech
and not all are appropriate for every audience.  (For a more complete
list is innovation issues see this open letter post.) 
I would say the only issue missing that I really wished he had touched
on with this audience was revisiting the Bayh-Dole Act—a piece of
legislation which was a bad deal for tax payers and a bad deal for
innovation.

Looking at the substance of his remarks, I am a little less
impressed.  On the plus side, Obama recognized that we can’t be
complacent and investing in our future is important.  Yet while he
glibly talked of the sins of letting scientific research be
politicized, his words and actions suggest that he only views political
influence as a bad thing when it is contrary to the political view he
subscribes to.  He frequently referenced carbon pollution as a key
focus of needed research—this is of course is one of the most
politicized science issues in recent history.  Obama cited many
specific investments in the form of doubling and in some cases tripling
of budgets for programs.  However, money doesn’t always equate with
impact.  I would have preferred to hear more about the allocation of
those funds.   Does doubling the budget of the National Science
Foundation mean that these new funds will flow through to actual
research, or does it mean that the NSF will add a heap of
bureaucracy?   (In the interest of full disclosure I should state that
I am very pro-NSF funding and was the recipient of an NSF grant back
when I was in school.)  For this reason, I can only give Obama a C+ on
substance.

Considering the policy behind the remarks is a more difficult
challenge.  Politicians are of course very skilled at minimizing the
degree to which they disclose the actual intent of policy when they
speak.  This is a necessary skill for politics because it is always
true that any time a politician take a concrete position, more votes
will be lost than gained.  So, we in the citizenry are forced to try
and read the tea leaves.  Based on past performance of government
initiatives, it is impossible to not have some healthy skepticism. 
Thus, I am not very optimistic.  I do believe that the increase funding
for certain agencies will have a positive impact, as will making the
R&D tax credit permanent.  So, kudos go to Obama for these
actions. 

However, I don’t hold much hope for Obama’s comments on education. 
It has been shown time and time again that throwing more money at
education does not produce results.  There is new thinking needed to
fix what is broken in our educational system, and I suspect that the
cure to what ails us may not require new money to implement as much as
a simple realignment of priorities, focus, and the funding associated
with current, well-meant-but-failed programs.  Not to be harsh, but we
also need to recognize that equality of opportunity does not mean
equality of outcome.  While we should invest in creating a level
playing field, it is a misuse of public funds to go to extremes to try
and force equal results.

I am also very worried when it becomes a matter of public policy to
direct where we will focus our national investment in research.  Obama
open his remarks stating that we can’t predict from where the great
breakthroughs will come.  But, he went on to make it clear that he
intends to focus funding in certain areas based on their political
currency.  Furthermore, from the sound of it, the voices that
contribute to the debate may be selectively chosen.  There are too many
examples from the past which make it clear that suppressing broad
discussion and dialogue around emerging science is never a good
approach.  I sincerely hope that I am misreading the tea leaves in this
area.

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As a final factor in assessing Obama’s innovation policies, I will
invoke the evidence of his actions on the economy.  Fortunately, the
economy has its own life and rhythm and it is a reality that government
action is less a factor than politicians would have us believe.  If
not, we would be looking at a disaster based solely on the actions to
date.  The so-called stimulus bill has very little in it that will
actually stimulate the economy, and the burden created by the massive
new debt load will be an economic drag for years to come.  The negative
effects of this bill will needlessly divert funds from moving our
nation forward into unproductive debt service.  This will not be good
for innovation.

So from the visible evidence to date, I give Obama a D for policy.  Too harsh?  What say you?

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