The death of Steve Jobs has really shaken the technology community. It has really made people do a lot of thinking about innovation and the impact of technology based companies on the economy. The Economist notes that the American work force is on the decline and the high tech companies aren’t making up enough jobs. That now companies like Apple and Google employ less than a third of what companies like GM used to employ. These high tech companies don’t need as many employees. Additionally, it’s a different type of work force that are required in the US. Apple outsources manufacturing because they are really concerned with driving down the cost of manufacturing and maximize profits. This is good business.
In a long article by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay Pal and a venture capitalist, he discusses what he calls the end of the future. Where he claims that we’ve been in an innovation slow down since the 70’s. He also argues that scientists and technologists aren’t living up to the claims they are making. He argues that in a lot of ways we’ve been technologically stagnant. Politicians have been making the same promises on energy since the 70’s and that we’ve been slowing down are rate of increase of production for food barely keeping up with population growth. I think that he does make some good points, but he definitely goes a bit over the top with his statements. He’s looking at things only within the national and regional context and is ignoring the fact that there have been cultural changes that have driven a change in how companies innovate.
Historically, companies don’t find value in doing basic research. If you look at the history of research labs within industry, they hire researchers to do incremental and radical innovation. However, this research is carried out within a scientific paradigm which was created in basic research.
In fact we’ve seen a decrease in the amount of R&D being spent by companies. This has lead to some of the stagnation in innovation that Thiel mentions. To combat this and to reduce the risk borne by the company they have been doing more and more contract research with universities and have increase the amount of money they spend with universities.
Thiel also mentions that the government might be able to help but doesn’t see it ever going to happen when you have to justify the expense by cutting something else. Since he’s a libertarian he feels that the budget must be balanced. However, our politicians are cutting budgets to the largest scientific funding agencies in the US. My wife sent me an email with some of the funding cuts, National Science Foundation is getting cut by 2.3%, in fact it’s 14% below the budget requested by the administration. The National Institute for Standards and Technology’s budget is getting cut by 9.3%. Both of these agencies create a large number of jobs. It’s been shown that one research job creates several other jobs. Cutting these budgets will reduce the amount of research which can be conducted. This will impact the number of researchers, impact the quality of education at universities and slow down the ability for universities and firms to exploit new research.
It typically takes 10 years for research to be monetizable. Cutting funding now impacts employment now and future employment. In fact, these changes will have a long term lasting impact. These choices create a path dependency within our society. Without proper funding we’ll be passed by some one that feels research is paramount.