Meanwhile, CES 2012 in Las Vegas roars on. Here, Gizmodo reports on A TRANSPARENT FREAKING TELEVISION. Let me just type that again so I can enjoy it. A transparent television. Sigh. The company that developed it, Haier, is headquartered in China, which makes it illegal (basically) for them to receive DoD funding. Somehow they were able to make one of the coolest innovations I've seen without a dime of Federal R&D money.
The Pentagon spends about 12 percent of its budget in that area, about $81.4 billion during the most recent fiscal year. That is roughly 55 percent of all federal spending on research and development.
Administration officials, members of Congress and Pentagon planners could choose to spare the research budget when making cuts. Historically, however, significant reductions to the Pentagon’s budget have led to reductions in research spending, too. Through both flush and lean times for the Pentagon, research spending has accounted for a roughly similar share — between 9 and 13 percent — of the overall budget.
It is a pot of money with a remarkable record of success. The Navy, which started budgeting for research in 1946, counts 59 eventual Nobel laureates among the recipients of its financing, including Charles H. Townes, whose pioneering work in the development of lasers laid the groundwork for compact discs and laser eye surgery. The other armed forces claim similar numbers of laureates, albeit with considerable overlap.
The results of this research played a key role in the blossoming of high technology as a driver of the nation’s economic growth. In northern Virginia, many of the largest companies continued to work for the Pentagon while also pursuing private contracts.
That's the tricky problem isn't it? Economists, Bob Wright, Matt Yglesias...they all try to sort out whether or not a drought in the river of Federal R&D money would lead to a river flowing in from somewhere else.
But here's where I think Yglesias is right:
[T]he question we need to ask about this is how elastic do we think the supply of innovators is. Maybe if spending on military robotics declines, reducing the total returns to robotics-related innovation, the we'll have many fewer people going into robotics and way less innovation. Maybe they'll teach yoga instead. But maybe if spending on military robotics declines then our most talented roboticists will focus more of their time and attention on civilian applications.As an innovator who works for a company that is part of the military-industrial complex and derives a significant portion of its income from DoD R&D spending I must concur. I am not an innovator because the DoD money comes my way. I am an innovator (I'm not being egomaniacal when I call myself that.) because it is what I am good at and what I enjoy doing. If I leave this company, and the DoD funding that comes with it...my mind won't suddenly switch into drone mode and I won't suddenly be okay with the status quo. Flip it around and you doubly see why Yglesias is right. Every minute I spend on a DoD project is another minute I am not directly innovating for the private sector. And don't be fooled. Many of the projects we do here do not translate in any way into private sector innovations.
Anyway, the point I want to make is that I think Yglesias is right: innovators are in limited supply in this world. And every innovator dreaming up revolutionary missile technologies is one less dreaming up revolutionary clean energy technologies. Every innovator dreaming up smarter weapons is one less dreaming up smarter antibiotics. What I want people to come away with is the realization that the military-industrial complex has gobbled up many innovators over the last three decades who could have made great advances elsewhere, and those people were not replaceable.
*I realize that in internet time, the links provided are ancient. Sorry. I started this post a while ago but life prevented its completion.