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April 17, 2014

HAMILTON: Government as innovator? You bet!

Five years ago, the federal government spent $169 billion to fund basic research and development. This fiscal year, it’s down to $134 billion.

People who believe in public belt-tightening applaud drops like that. I understand why: there are many reasons to reduce government spending. But in this case they’re wrong. We need to boost the government’s investment in R&D, not slash it.

Let’s begin with the federal government’s record, which is nothing short of impressive. The bar codes that revolutionized inventory control and tracking were developed with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Google’s founders depended on government grants for their early research into search algorithms. Computer touch-screens, computer-aided design, GPS navigation, voice-activated “virtual assistants,” the Internet — all based on government research or funds. So were key advancements in agriculture (including the “easy-care cotton” you’ll find in your permanent-press slacks), the horizontal drilling techniques that have turned the U.S. into a natural-gas powerhouse, and many life-saving pharmaceuticals.

The plain truth is that much of the research that catalyzes and accelerates technological advance is too risky, too slow to pay off, or too expensive for the private sector to undertake. “Today, the scope, duration and cost of breakthrough research is either beyond the private sector’s corporate and philanthropic resources or outside its profit model,” wrote Teresa Tritch in The New York Times last year.

This is not welcome news for market absolutists, but clearly there is a government role to play in underpinning economic dynamism. Mariana Mazzucato, a British economist who last year published a bracing book on the subject, “The Entrepreneurial State,” argues that federal government programs such as Small Business Innovation Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have provided far more funding for early-stage technology companies than private venture capital has done.

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