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U.S. R&D off the track

Posted: June 11, 2008 2:13 p.m.
Updated: August 12, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
With 50 years of experience in the research and development business, I have to disagree with Anne McFeatters' position that the decline in U.S. technological leadership is due to lack of government funding. Except in the military area, U.S. inventiveness has rarely been funded by the government. Think of Edison, Ford, the Wright Brothers and Silicon Valley.

Government can be part of the problem when it uses its influence and rules to inhibit innovation that is opposed by industrial groups, such as the auto companies, who do not want to have to compete with, or adapt to, new technologies.

The media is a large part of the problem. Industries can be huge advertisers and thus have tremendous influence over media income. As an example, are you familiar with the Automotive Xprize competition to find new ways to power the cars in the future? If not, you are in the majority!

The competition, originated by a foundation located in Santa Monica, was announced more than a year ago. To date, the dominant newspaper in the L.A. area, where auto smog originated, has yet to mention the competition.

Another problem with government-funded R&D, aside from possible interference, is the nature of bureaucracy. New ideas usually involve the risk of failure, and bureaucrats abhor both risk and the possibility of failure.

Even the bureaucracy of large corporations inhibits innovation. Robert Gross, the founder of Lockheed, originated the Skunk Works in order to keep corporate bureaucracy from strangling innovation. I believe that is why his death in 1960 marked the end of Lockheed's golden age of growth.

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