A High-Powered Plea

Think of it as The Da Vinci Code for policy wonks. Released in December by the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness, “Innovate America: National Innovation Initiative Report,” a 68-page plea for government support of innovation, has already been downloaded more than 115,000 times from the Council’s Web site, and cited approvingly in Congressional budget testimony by Bush administration officials. “We are thrilled with the visibility the report has gotten,” says Council president Deborah Wince-Smith, who also has been asked to testify about it before Congress.

Despite the report’s warm reception and the Council’s clout (it is chaired by BellSouth chief executive Duane Ackerman, and the innovation initiative is headed by IBM Corp. CEO Sam Palmisano and Georgia Institute of Technology president Wayne Clough), the success of a national innovation agenda is far from assured. In fact, Congress last year cut the National Science Foundation budget by more than $100 million, including a $31 million cut in research and related activities. And federal funding of fundamental research is at half its mid-1960s peak of 2 percent of GDP, says Nicholas Donofrio, senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at IBM and the leader of one of the Council’s working groups.

Meaningful government support is “essential,” says Donofrio, but the private sector also must contribute in areas like skill development and “pursuing a relentless focus on innovation within their own companies and cultures.” Donofrio also notes that corporate R&D spending fell nearly $8 billion in 2002, the largest single-year decline since the 1950s.

The report makes recommendations on development of human talent, investment and infrastructure needed to compete in the global economy. Proposals for near-term action include the centralization of economic development dollars currently spread across the federal budget, and increased focus on pushing those dollars toward innovation-based projects. Harder to accomplish may be more expensive goals with implications beyond development policy, such as immigration reform, education and research.

Any U.S. effort has to be tied in with global innovation initiatives to really work, says Mark D. Minevich, a principal with Going Global Ventures Inc. who has worked closely with the Council. The real trick will be making innovation a national issue on a par with, say, Social Security reform. “The seeds are there in this report,” he says. “Now the issues need to be put in the public spotlight.”

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