Two weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called “The Amateur Hour” about how “America’s basement brainstormers, workbench concocters and garage tinkerers,” are reviving NASA’s space program. It was an uplifting story that should inspire nostalgia in anyone who ever participated in a high school science fair. But why do we need amateurs, one might ask? What about America’s professional inventors?


U.S. culture and global influence is based on its perennial quest to find, as Michael Lewis once called it, “the new new thing.” But the country’s “innovation ecology”-that is, patent laws, intellectual property rights, research and development budgets, product standards, etc.-is currently “broken,” according to William Wulf, the former head of the National Academy of Engineering.


Last Tuesday, Cornelia Dean profiled the recently retired Wulf in The New York Times, summarizing his views on how and why the U.S. must rethink and reinvigorate its manufacturing industry. Her story complements a similar piece in The Scientist, a life sciences magazine, which examines the economic return on government investment in academic research and development. Both articles offer a welcome departure from the more typical, lab- and journal-based news by making a wider examination of how scientific innovation is, and isn’t, encouraged.


Wulf has sterling credentials, something that Dean is quick to point out, but some his arguments are a bit difficult to understand-something I’ll get to in a minute. The gist of his position, though, is that much of America’s “innovation ecology” is outdated or inadequate. In other words, the patent laws, budgets, standards, etc. that govern invention have not been modified to keep up with rapidly changing economies and marketplaces. “The United States has already ceded its dominance its mass production manufacturing to low-wage countries,” Dean writes, “and unless something is done to improve the ecology of innovation, Dr. Wulf said, the nation will lose its chance for a comeback in what he calls the coming age of mass customization.”


Basically, Wulf wants the U.S. to return to manufacturing, but with an emphasis on highly customized products rather than mass-produced ones. In June, Wulf authored a guest editorial for the journal Science in which he laid out many of the same arguments that appear in Dean’s article, including examples of how America’s innovation ecology (again, the patents, regulations, and so forth) is thwarting the development of new products. But this is where it gets tricky. I can understand Wulf’s desire to keep things up to date, but his supporting evidence needs some elaboration.


In Science Wulf writes that the current patent system, designed for physical machines, is not necessarily “ideal” for items such as computer software and DNA sequences, or for modern business platforms. Wulf, though, does not explain why this is. In an attempt to do so, he writes: “[Thirty] Silicon chief technology officers told me that the U.S. patent system was irrelevant to the original Constitutional intent to encourage innovation. Although their fast product cycles make them skeptical about decadal protection, their reaction shows that a system invented for an old technology won’t necessarily fit a new one.” A pretty murky explanation, and then Wulf moves on quickly to other topics.


After the patent system, he criticizes antitrust laws and the drug approval process at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Antitrust laws were created at a time when scarcity created product value, Wulf writes, but now ubiquity does that. He offers Microsoft Word as an example, but it’s tough to see where his emphasis on customized rather than mass-produced products fits in here. As for drug approval, Wulf argues that the large, randomized, and anonymous clinical trials of the past are not suited to bringing new, individually tailored therapies to market. One can only assume that he’s referring to genomic medicines, but it is unclear why the older-style clinical trials must be phased out or altered, rather than just creating a parallel system for modern medicines.


In the Times Dean might have cut some of the background on Wulf to more fully explore his ideas. His critique of innovation ecology in the U.S. is a very worthwhile subject after all and, despite the criticisms of his editorial laid out here, Wulf raises important questions about invention’s role in the future of the U.S. economy. That, in turn, raises another question: What kind of economic return does government investment in scientific research produce?


That question was the topic of The Scientist’s cover story in the July issue. The article, by Kerry Grens, focuses exclusively on investments in the life sciences (biology, biotech, health, etc.) at universities and public labs, such the National Institutes of Health. She cites a recent Congressional study that found high economic returns from investments in the institutes’ research. “In other words,” she writes, “besides the obvious health benefits of NIH funding for biomedical research, it also saves Americans money by lengthening their lifespan and improving healthcare.”


Grens finds a few other examples and studies that support the idea that science is a good investment. But if that is so, she asks, why not throw even larger sums of money into research and development? Grens cites an interesting 1991 study by Edwin Mansfield, a now-deceased economist at the University of Pennsylvania. Mansfield found that 28 percent was the magic number, “meaning each dollar put into research would yield $1.28 in social and economics benefits within about a decade.” In reality, however, that number seems almost arbitrary. “For every estimate of the returns on scientific investment, there are many reasons why that estimate could be wrong,” Grens writes. “The bottom line: No one knows what the actual returns of science are.”


Two of the “reasons” that Grens refers to are the long lag time between academic research and the commercialization of a product based on that research, and the difficulty associated with identifying the economic benefits of research (which can be myriad and subtle). Grens has a couple of sources, including John Marburger, President Bush’s science adviser, saying that there are simply no metrics for calculating the expected return on scientific investment, so policymakers rarely consider economics when making decisions about funding. She also has a very good quote from another source saying that it might harm the scientific process-which tends to be long, circuitous, and fraught with many setbacks-if researchers’ ability to obtain grants depended on demonstrating “short-term, easily measurable impact.”


With so many caveats to scientific inquiry, it is no wonder that how to maximize the output and efficiency of scientific innovation remains a mystery. Still, readers must give credit to Wulf and Grens for attempting to flesh out such difficult questions about the nature of research, public policy, and commercialization. The media’s work, however, is not done. Wulf’s arguments need elaboration and The Scientist’s article does not address any non-life sciences products, such as software, that Wulf would like to promote. Following Dean’s and Gren’s lead, it would be nice to see more of these wide-angle articles about the scientific process.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.