So, I’ve been reading Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State. It’s brilliant and irritating, in equal measures. Brilliant because of the way it skewers certain free-market riffs about the role of risk and entrepreneurialism in the innovation process, and irritating because it’s maddeningly cavalier about applying business terms to government processes (in particular, the term “risk”, which Mazzucato doesn’t seem to understand means something entirely different in government, if losses can be made whole through taxation).
Anyways, one thing that occurred to me while reading was just how America-specific much of the literature on innovation is. Take the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In innovation policy circles it’s generally considered a wicked-cool way of organizing Big Science: it’s project-based, it brings teams together from both academia and business, and it has substantial independence. And, of course, the basic research has produced things like GPS and the Internet (still the core anecdotes used to back the “government-should-be-
Brilliant, right? So why doesn’t everyone have a DARPA? Why doesn’t Canada?
The answer is that DARPA wouldn’t make any sense here. Our government agencies don’t have enough of the “big problems” that DARPA is designed to solve – or, at least, that could be solved at a price we can afford. And frankly, we don’t have enough private-sector research scientists to make headway into these kinds of projects, anyway.
More broadly, the American system of funding science works because of a particular combination of factors: the problems needing to be solved, the presence of major private sector research efforts, a particular type of venture capital industry, and scale. Canada – like most countries in the world – would, at most, get part-marks on any of those four criteria. So why do we think that policies based on American examples work for us?
Take questions of “applied” vs. “basic” science. Maybe the classic Vannevar Bush formulation of, “government funds universities to do basic research, and companies do the applied stuff” only makes sense in the US context. Maybe without the VC culture, or the private sector research culture, the idea that government should only be playing in the “basic” side of the continuum doesn’t make any sense. Maybe countries who aren’t quite at the technological frontier don’t get as much bang for their buck in basic research as America does.
This is just speculation on my part, of course. But I’m tired of the innovation literature assuming that US-inspired solutions will work here. Just for once, I’d like to see some literature and policy prescriptions based on what works in Korea, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. There’s probably a whole other set of policy lessons to be learned, if only we looked for them in the right places.