A Brief History of American Innovation

On November 30th the Wilson Center’s Program on America and the Global Economy hosted a group of Latin America scholars to discuss American innovation policy and scientific research. The group, comprised of citizens of Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico and Chile, contributed to a lively and educational discussion about the intricacies of planned research today.

Opening with the history of the Wilson Center, PAGE Director Kent Hughes described for the group America’s innovation policies throughout the twentieth century until today.  Hughes noted that the US Constitution specifically granted Congress the power to regulate intellectual property with an idea to economic development  In the 19th century, while the US was still “land rich, people poor,” Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, signed the Morrill Act establishing the land grant college system.  Today, one can see such remnants of the early emphasis on education that will contribute to the economy in schools like Texas A & M- the A&M standing for agricultural and mechanical.

This foundation for innovation and research, established in the nineteenth century, extended well into the twentieth century.  The navy, for example, played a seminal role following WWI in collaborating with private companies to focus on radio communications technology and the founding of what became RCA.  Following WWII, there was a broadly shared sense that science and technology had played a key role in securing the Allied victory.  Vannevar Bush, the science advisor for President Truman, oversaw a structured framework for national scientific research that led to the formation of the National Science Foundation.

Challenged in the 1980s by Japan’s success in speeding innovations to the commercial market, the United States adopted a series of new laws designed to facilitate collaboration between the private sector, universities, and the national laboratories.  The Japanese ways of business – extensive collaboration between government and industry, trade barriers to foster domestic industries, and, in the early stage of growth, considerable government intervention in the economy triggered a debate in the United States over the proper roles of government and markets; a debate which continues to the present day.  Hughes argued that in the future, the question will not be about “government versus markets” but finding an adequate and proper balance between the two.

When asked if the US set clear priorities for research, Hughes responded that researchers’ priorities are generally heavily influenced by the priorities of institutions like the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The visitors also asked about the degree of support for green technologies.  Hughes noted that there has been growing popular support for research and innovations targeted at energy security as well as the environment.

By: Wesley Milillo

Kent Hughes: Director, Program on America and the Global Economy

Photo credit: David Hawxhurst/Woodrow Wilson Center

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