Well, okay… I admit that I’m annoyed. When Obama was swept into office, the winds of change seemed an unstoppable force, and many likened Obama to JFK. Now, Obama has distanced himself from JFK by essentially scuttling the programs that are a lingering part of the JFK legacy. He has decided to discontinue NASA programs around the space shuttle and lunar exploration.
So you could say, “So what; do we really care about that stuff?” Some might even make some good arguments for why these programs should be dropped. But, here’s why you should care.
The fact is that there is little governments actually do that doesn’t in some way hurt the cause of innovation. If you don’t believe that statement, just take a look at the evidence of history. Even when governments try to do the right thing, they usually step on innovation along the way. Consider what happens when a new safety standard is put in place for consumer protection. The standard is often adopted from existing industrial practice as promoted by the organization with the best lobbyists. The net result is that barriers to new competition are erected and the status quo is codified. When the current administration channels big dollars to solar energy research, they in effect pick the winners and losers of technology and divert private funding away from other innovative energy strategies.
One of the few things that government does that actually helps the march of innovation is provide funding for basic and applied research that private industry isn’t focused on. This is fundamentally of value to future innovation because a big part of the innovation equation is the application of knowledge to creating high-value solutions to market needs. But, solutions come from existing knowledge. Government funded research contributed to the fund of knowledge that is available to innovators. Every time the boundaries of our human experience and scientific knowledge are extended through programs like the NASA programs which are slated to be killed, our global “box” is expanded, and our potential to solve new problems and find new game-changing innovations is enhanced.
Sure, not every program or endeavor can or should be funded indefinitely. But, I believe there is still tremendous potential in these specific programs. The decisions represented in Obama’s 2011 budget are a clear setback for global innovation and should send a shiver down the spine of all of us.