If you’re interested in innovation policy, and haven’t spent time under a rock for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard of Mariana Mazzucato. She’s the professor economics at the University of Sussex who wrote The Entrepreneurial State, which is rapidly becoming the source of an enormous number of errors as far as science and economic policy are concerned.
Mazzucato’s work got a fair bit of publicity when it was released for pointing out that a lot of private sector tech is an outgrowth of public sector-sponsored research. She has a nice chapter, for instance, outlining how various components of the iPhone – the touchscreen, the GPS, the clickwheels, the batteries… hell, the internet itself – are based on research done by the US government. This is absolutely bleeding obvious if you’re in science policy, but apparently people out there need to be reminded once in awhile, so Mazzucato found an audience.
Where Mazzucato goes wrong, however, is when she begins to draw inferences; for instance, she suggests that because the state funds “risky” research (i.e. research that no one else wold fund), it’s role in R&D is that of a “risk-taking” entity. She also argues that since the state takes a leading position in the scientific development of some industries (e.g. biotech), it is therefore an “entrepreneurial” entity. From this, Mazzucato concludes that the state deserves a share of whatever profits private companies make when they use technology developed with public science.
There are two problems here. The first is that Mazzucato is rather foolishly conflating risk and uncertainty (risk is tangible and calculable, uncertainty is not). Governments are not a risk-takers in any meaningful sense: they are not in any danger of folding if investments come to naught, because they can use taxing power (or in extremis, the ability to print money) to stay afloat. What they do via funding of basic research is to reduce uncertainty: to shed light on areas that were previously unknowable. Individual companies do very little of this, not just because it’s difficult and expensive (if a company is big enough, that’s not a problem – see Bell Labs or indeed some of the quite amazing stuff Google is doing these days), but because the spillover from such research might allow competitors to reap much of its value (a point Kenneth Arrow made over fifty years ago).
The second issue is that nearly all of the examples Mazzucato offers of public research leading to technological innovation and profit are American, and a fairly high percentage of these examples were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). To put it mildly, these examples are sui generis. It’s not at all clear that what works in terms of government investment in the US, with its massive defense infrastructure, huge pools of venture capital, and deep wells of entrepreneurial talent, hold very many lessons for countries like Canada, which are not similarly endowed. Yet Mazzucato more or less acts as if her recommendations are universal.
The book’s recommendations amount to: government should own a share of young innovative companies by gaining shares in return for use of publicly-funded knowledge. But this is pretty tricky: first, there are very few cases where you can draw a straight line from a specific piece of publicly-funded IP to a specific product, and even where you can, there’s no guarantee that the piece of IP was publicly-funded by your local government (Canadian start-ups benefit from knowledge that has been created through public subsidies in many different countries, not just Canada). And while there’s a case for greater government investment in emerging companies (economist Dani Rodrik makes it here for instance), the case is not in any way predicated on government investments in R&D. In Canada, the CPP could adopt such a policy right now if it wanted – there’s no reason why it needs to be linked to anything Industry Canada is doing in science funding. To the contrary, as Stian Westlake points out, countries that have been most successful in converting public science investments into private hi-tech businesses eschew the idea of equity in return for scientific subsidies.
Worst of all – though this is not entirely Mazzucato’s fault – her argument is being picked up and distorted by the usual suspects on the left. These distortions are usually variations on: “Someone said the state is entrepreneurial? That means the state must know how to run businesses! Let’s get the state more involved in the direction of the economy/shaping how technology is used!” This way disaster lies.
So, Mazzucato did everyone a service by forcefully reminding people about the importance of publicly-funded R&D to any innovation system. But her policy prescriptions are much less impressive. Treat with care.