WASHINGTON – To increase the company’s supply of pickles, increase the demand for cash for them. Increasing the supply of America’s most important product – innovation – is more complicated. It’s about money that fuels a culture that nurtures talented individuals.
Solving the complexities of this situation is one of the goals of the Endless Borders Act, which aims to disburse $ 100 billion over five years to find and support those who will shape the future of science. It is, inevitably, a process of some spectacular successes among many failures.
The EFA is perhaps an unwitting homage to one of the sources of American dynamism, immigration, because it implicitly embraces the vision of an Austrian immigrant, the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who came to Harvard in 1932. His theory was that the main engines of social dynamism are not the workers (as Marx believed) or various impersonal economic forces (as many economists believed), but the innovators – the inventors of new things and new enterprises. Thomas Edison, working in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, “invention factory” – he eventually held 1,093 patents – was one. Others include Henry Ford, Thomas Watson, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs.
The model for successful government-fueled innovation began in September 1942 when the government purchased 58,575 acres of wilderness in eastern Tennessee and created the town of Oak Ridge with state-of-the-art physics facilities. Thirty-four months later, an atomic explosion lit up the New Mexico desert. The Manhattan Project had a narrow focus: the problem of liberating and militarizing the explosive energy of the atom.
The challenge of EFA is to stimulate, in the long term, a vast and deep culture of fundamental science and the translation of its fruits into technologies. To appreciate the national history of life-changing innovations, read “Capitalism in America” (2018) by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge.
In 1800, a farmer swinging a scythe could harvest an acre in a day. In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick’s threshing machine, developed from 1833 to 1834, began to displace legions of farm laborers, who migrated to higher productivity jobs. Scientific agriculture today allows the nation to feed its 330 million and export surpluses while cultivating roughly the same area as in 1910, when there were 238 million fewer Americans. Isaac Singer’s sewing machines, invented in the 1840s, “did as much as any 19th century invention to liberate women,” reducing the time to make a shirt from more than 14 hours to less. an hour and a half. “Between 1920 and 2000,” Greenspan and Wooldridge write, “labor requirements per tonne of crude steel increased a thousandfold, from over three man-hours per metric tonne to just 0.003.”
For Americans with supercomputers, aka smartphones, in their pockets, the shift from scythes to threshers, from hand-sewing to sewing machines, and less efficient steelmaking may seem trivial. The common thread, however, is the restless, risk-taking minds of a talented few.
The drafters of the Constitution understood this. On the strength of their Enlightenment belief in applied knowledge, they gave constitutional status to patent protection (article 1, section 8). In 1800, while England had two universities, the young republic had dozens. In the United States in particular, but elsewhere as well, applied knowledge has produced something new: economic growth. According to the calculation of one scholar (Angus Maddison), between the birth of Jesus and the beginning of the 19th century, the growth was about 0.11% per year – anemia of 11% per century.
Today, national security is an increasingly urgent reason for government support for basic science. Competition with China involves increasingly sophisticated semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and quantum computers. Paul Sen’s new book, “Einstein’s Refrigerator: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe,” on the development of the science of thermodynamics, takes its title from a delicious fact that is relevant to all of this.
Einstein’s father and an uncle had been inveterate inventors and tinkerers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s – two decades after Einstein’s four groundbreaking 1905 papers: mass-energy equivalence, etc. – he contributed to the design and patenting of a refrigerator using coolants that were less hazardous than those then used in many refrigerators. He called on a former student, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist and mathematician.
Their invention was never commercialized, but as happens in science, one thing unpredictably leads to another. Szilard – like Einstein, a refugee from Nazi Germany – wrote the August 2, 1939 letter that Einstein signed urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “accelerate experimental work” on the possibility of “extremely powerful bombs of” a new type ”using“ a nuclear chain reaction ”in uranium.
If EFA is successful, it will trigger creative chain reactions from a critical mass of gifted individuals.