Internet-based Approaches to Reform Education and Improve Policy-Making Could Boost U.S. Innovation

In 1877, Thomas Edison drew a sketch of a device with a long tube with a crank at the end and a can-like enlargement in the center. The drawing was for a phonograph, a recording device that became the basis of the recording and music industry and enhanced the movie industry.

That a simple sketch—an idea—could ultimately generate such substantial economic payback exemplifies innovation, which speakers at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy said is on the decline in the United States and on the rise in other nations. The speakers, who were policy-makers, analysts and educators, described what is being done now to strengthen innovation in the United States and around the world.

In the second half of the last century and the beginning of this one, the United States led the world in creating innovative products, innovative processes, and innovative business models, said F.M. Ross Armbrecht, moderator of a Forum session on innovation. Armbrecht is the executive director of the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education. “That leadership formed the platform on which our present standard of living is based,” he said.

But recent reports show that United States is dropping in the list of innovative countries. “It’s time to take this very seriously and examine the policy elements that support a leading innovation climate,” said Armbrecht, who also the chairs the AAAS Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy.

More than 500 scientists, policymakers, journalists and others interested in science and technology policy attended this year’s Forum, which featured talks by President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren and leaders at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Forum began 35 years ago and has become the foremost venue of discussion on science and technology policy. This year, it was held 13-14 May in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in downtown Washington, D.C.

Innovation: ‘It’s About Generating Payback’

Andrew Taylor
Andrew Taylor

In the session “Strengthening the U.S. Climate for Innovation,” Andrew Taylor described how the United States is becoming less innovative compared to other countries. Taylor is a partner and managing director in the Chicago Office of the Boston Consulting Group, one of the largest management consulting firms in the world. He used Thomas Edison’s first sketch of the phonograph to explain how an idea can evolve into an industry. “This is what innovation is. It’s an idea that is driven toward impact and more ideally toward commercialization,” Taylor said. “It’s about generating payback.”

In the past 50 years, roughly 50-70% of productivity growth in the United States has been driven by new innovation. What’s more important, Taylor said, is that “there’s every reason to believe that this will accelerate in the future.”

The United States is now ranked No. 8 in innovation, behind Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Finland. Japan and Sweden are ranked ninth and tenth. Taylor shared these innovation rankings, from an analysis of 110 countries around the world. The study

was based on surveys and interviews with company executives and compiled by the Boston Consulting Group and the National Association of Manufacturers.

To make the United States more attractive to companies, there are several potential government policies, including driving science and technology education, increasing the overall level of spending on innovation, and removing bureaucratic obstacles. Companies looking for places to establish their next research and development facility will look at all of these factors in potential host countries.

A trained science and technology workforce is also critical. While the United States has done well in producing Ph.D.s and other scientists over the years, Taylor said, other countries have seen the United States’ success and are working to catch up.

Innovation Could Protect from Economic Booms and Busts

Other speakers on the session agreed with the urgent need to boost the country’s innovation. “We have to have more than a hope and a prayer that research comes out into payback,” said John Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic development in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As the economy picks up again, he said, he and his colleagues are looking to innovation as a way to provide sustainable growth that protects against booms and busts. “We can’t predict what the next big thing will be, but if we’re investing in the fundamentals we’re also building a broader ecosystem in which the next big things will have a real opportunity to be born and to grow,” he said.

He’s looking for best practices and policies to accelerate research findings into marketable products. For instance, the newly announced, $12 million i6 Challenge seeks best practices and opportunities for creating technology ideas that can spur business growth and job creation.

“We don’t have a very efficient or effective system of commercialization of research out of our federal labs or out of our universities,” Fernandez said. New systems are needed to bring research findings into economic payback.

Innovation in California: Healthcare and Education

Susan Hackwood
Susan Hackwood

Susan Hackwood described policies to foster innovation on the state level. She’s the executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology, a non-profit established in 1988 by the California Legislature to help public and private sectors answer science and technology issues facing the state, such as healthcare, energy, education, and innovation.

Innovation in healthcare is one area that the California Council on Science and Technology wants to improve in California. For instance, large pharmaceutical companies are not being as innovative as they could be because they’re too big, Hackwood said. “Innovation arises from small, nimble companies,” she said.

Spurred by decoding the human genome, personalized medicine is growing. This approach is about “delivering the right dose of the right drug to the right person at the right time,” Hackwood said. Through the Council’s pilot program, Personalized Healthcare Information Technology, they’re looking at how to combine electronic health records with genomic information to improve healthcare decisions by individuals and their healthcare providers. The project aims to improve healthcare, reduce costs, and grow California businesses.

Education is another area needing improvement in California. “We have a serious concern about the erosion of public support for the public education systems,” Hackwood said. For instance, the California state education system is getting competition from the University of Phoenix, a private university which offers online and in-class degree programs.

The University of Phoenix has more students enrolled than the California State University system, even though tuition is higher at the University of Phoenix. Why are students choosing a more costly education? Mobile technology and social networking, Hackwood said. They’re “able to work and learn anywhere and they can graduate job-ready,” she said.

Policy-Making Using Social Media

Though social media may have made an initial impression as having little value as a communication tool, its strengths to quickly gather information from a wide-range of users is being used as a public engagement tool in science and technology policy-making.

Anil Dash
Anil Dash

Anil Dash—a long-time blogger and a member of start-up communities in Silicon Valley, California, and New York City—described how he is using his technology background as the director of AAAS’s Expert Labs program. The program uses social media tools to solicit and compile public input on challenges in science and technology.

Using an Internet-based platform called ThinkTank, which was created by Expert Labs, Dash and his collaborators were able to test how social media could be used to answer policy questions. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy requested public responses to what the next grand challenges in science and technology will be.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy solicited responses by sending messages through the office’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Those messages were reposted by other users, doubling the number of individuals who saw the request for feedback, Dash said.

Within 48 hours, Expert Labs accumulated 2000 responses. But what about quantity versus quality? “You get some bad ones, but you also get some great ones. It’s a way to get insight,” Dash said. Since responses sent over social networks are so immediate and no more than a couple of sentences, Dash said that it’s not a burden to read through them and filter out the duplicates or those that are off-topic.

Funding for K-12 Education Reform

The new program National Lab Day is another example of using social networking to connect different communities. Launched in May and called a “national barn-raising for hands-on learning,” the program’s website pairs teachers with scientists and engineers who want to help out in classrooms. And it gives a place for donors to contribute to science and engineering projects in classrooms.

Steven Robinson
Steven Robinson

Steven Robinson, special assistant on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, told the AAAS audience how National Lab Day is more than just a day—it’s an ongoing way for scientists to help teachers. “Scientists often comment that the kids coming to the universities aren’t very prepared,” he said. This program is a way for scientists, engineers and mathematicians to help teachers help their students.

Robinson told the Forum audience about several federal funding sources for innovation in education. For instance, states can apply for funding from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund. The fund has a competitive priority on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and states which apply for funding must have rigorous courses in these fields and build partnerships with science and technology groups within their state, including universities, companies, and foundations.

The Race to the Top Fund also has money for improvements to testing materials. “We have to make sure that we’re testing kids on what we actually want them to know rather than testing them on the cheapest possible bubble test that the state can buy,” Robinson said.

Robinson also discussed funding opportunities in the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), which funds projects that will close achievement gaps between students, decrease high school drop-out rates, and improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

The fund has three levels of funding which allow for innovative ideas to be developed more carefully before being applied widely. “You don’t want to innovate too much on our kids for too long,” Robinson said. “You want to make sure what you’re doing is working.”


See more news from the 2010 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum.

Get details about the program and speakers at this year’s Forum.