Science and R&D

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Universities are Innovation Engines: New Evidence

University spinoffs more innovative, more successful than comparable firms

A new working paper by Swedish economist Andreas Stephan asks whether startups that were born as spinoffs from public universities are more innovative than similar, non-spinoff firms. Using a 2004 survey of East-German firms, Stephan compares the innovativeness of firms as measured by their patent applications and the originality of their patents. Even compared to firms of a similar age, industry, and location, the paper finds that university spinoffs do a better job of innovating.

The obvious lesson here for economic policy is that universities are studying useful things, and that we should have policies that encourage their transition from academic papers to real-world businesses. Business incubation has been on the U.S. national agenda for decades—since at least the passing of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act—but there is much more that we can do.

For instance, Stephan finds that spinoff firms were more successful due to their collaboration, their proximity to universities, and their ability to get public research grant funding. All three of these traits are easy to translate into policy. Stephan also notes that even those firms that were … Read the rest

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Ernest Moniz’ Confirmation Hearing Underscores Importance of Innovation

MIT physics professor Dr. Ernest Moniz has yet to receive Senate confirmation to serve as the nation’s next Energy Secretary, let alone begin his tenure. This hasn’t stopped speculation about what a Moniz-led Department of Energy (DOE) might look like. National Journal quotes one Brookings Institution scholar as saying “I think it will be a very different agency than it was in the first term. Ernie knows climate change, but also unconventional oil and gas and coal and nuclear. He will push the president towards a more balanced policy.” But if Dr. Moniz’ comments during his confirmation hearing yesterday are any indication of what would come from a department under his leadership, clean energy innovation has a good chance of remaining a top priority for the DOE.

Although the hearing covered a host of topics, ranging from cybersecurity to nuclear waste cleanup, the importance of public investment in research and development emerged as a topic of discussion at several points. Moniz’ opening statement actually started with a strong defense of a continued DOE role in research: “More than a hundred Nobel Prizes have resulted from DOE-associated research. DOE operates an … Read the rest

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Critical Materials Institute a Welcome Addition to the Energy Innovation Ecosystem

Dysprosium, a rare earth metal used in magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Department of Energy announced the establishment of a new Energy Innovation Hub at the Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa – the fifth such Hub, following the creation of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research last November. The new Hub will be named the Critical Materials Institute and will “develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S. energy security,” as stated in the Department of Energy (DOE) press release. The Hub-system continues to be a model for concentrating national research efforts, both public and private, and the focus area of the newest addition is a vital one.

As the DOE notes in a helpful infographic, rare earth metals like dysprosium and neodymium are essential to the creation of a wide array of electronics, as well as clean energy technologies like photovoltaic solar film, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. Yet China alone produces close to 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, a set of seventeen different chemical … Read the rest

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R&D Tax Credits: They Work! Will Policymaker’s Listen to the Evidence?

As we approach the end of 2012, the currently expired U.S. R&D tax credits are being altogether ignored by the media, and generally ignored by policy makers. Nothing has been done this year to ensure that firms will receive the same benefits as in the past. This leaves firms guessing as to whether or not they should increase or decrease their investments in R&D, or move them abroad.  The evidence on the effectiveness of R&D tax incentives continue to mount.  In the latest edition of New Economics Papers in Technology and Industrial Dynamics, another compelling analysis by Bond & Guceri, “Trends in UK BERD after the Introduction of R&D Tax Credits,” shows that R&D tax incentives not only bolster business investment in R&D, but businesses respond even more than previously predicted by Bloom et al.  The analysis shows that especially in high-tech manufacturing, the R&D tax credit causes a substantial increase in R&D, which provides further evidence that a permanent R&D tax credit is needed here in the United States.

The study shows that when R&D costs are treated more favorably by the tax code than capital investment, … Read the rest

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Government Support for Clean Energy Innovation: Breakthrough Carbon Capture Modeling

Researchers affiliated with the University of Minnesota, the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a breakthrough computer model that can identify the best molecules for capturing carbon from power plant stacks. The model greatly accelerates the search for new low-cost and efficient ways to burn coal and natural gas while also drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But this significant breakthrough would not have been possible without key public investments in energy innovation.

Carbon capture technology development largely focuses on amine scrubbing, a process that uses chemical solvents to absorb carbon dioxide from coal and gas power plant stacks. However, fueling the traditional amine-based processes requires it to use as much as a third of the energy produced by the power plant itself. As a result, the process induces so-called “parasitic energy” costs – power producers must burn more coal or gas to run a power plant with amine carbon capture technology than a plant without. The added energy costs greatly reduce the potential for deployment, so dramatically lowering those costs through new technologies could go a long … Read the rest

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Basic Research the Wrong Focus for ARPA-E

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has enjoyed bipartisan support since its inception, with members of Congress from both parties appearing at this year’s Energy Innovation Summit to laud its achievements. The agency’s reputation is such that a 2010 report by scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Breakthrough Institute, and the Brookings Institution entitled Post-Partisan Power called for its annual budget to be increased to $1.5 billion. (Congress appropriated $275 million for the agency for fiscal year 2012). Yet there has been a troubling trend as an increasing number of policymakers and advocates are calling for ARPA-E’s mission to be redirected to focus solely on basic research – exploration of fundamental principles with no regard for commercial applications. A move in that direction, however, would completely misunderstand the role the agency is meant to play in the energy innovation cycle and would be a serious mistake.

Last year, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) accused the Obama Administration of shifting the Department of Energy’s focus from basic research to “later-stage technology development and commercialization efforts,” an approach that he panned as “picking winners and losers.” It was thus unsurprising when … Read the rest

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Big Benefits from Big Pharma: Longevity and Real Welfare Growth

The pharmaceutical industry certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of detractors. Many claim that “Big-Pharma” is simply in it for the money, and that they’ll push new drugs simply to boost profits, even if the drugs aren’t appropriate for the consumer.  Others argue that we should eliminate intellectual property protections to get lower price drugs, since there isn’t really that much innovation that has a real impact happening anyway.

However, before throwing the pharmaceutical industry under the bus, it is critical to understand the relationship between pharmaceutical R&D, new drugs and human health impacts.  And in fact, a recent study finds that the related drugs brought to market are having a bigger positive effect than you might think. Frank Lichtentberg, a professor at Columbia University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research,  finds that an increase in drug proliferation year-over-year (drug vintage) leads to increased life expectancy.  From 2000 to 2009, the study finds that life expectancy increased by 1.74 years on average, and 73% of that increase was due to new drugs brought to market after 1990. In other words, pharmaceutical innovation added 1.23 Read the rest

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Time to Turn NNMI from Concept to Reality

Why do we need a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a $1 billion initiative the Obama Administration has proposed to facilitate public-private collaboration to enhance manufacturing competitiveness?  Why not just reduce the tax and regulatory burden on companies and let free enterprise work its magic?

That question was the basis of some skepticism of NNMI voiced by members of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation at a public hearing today. As one Member put it, why not do it the “old-fashioned” way?

Well, in a way this is the old-fashioned way.  When it came to innovations such as the Internet, “fracking” in the energy sector, advances in biotechnology that have extended our lives, and other breakthroughs, the government played a modest role in undertaking initial costs and risks of R&D or in harnessing the nation’s talent and resources in ways the private sector could not or would not do. This has been true since land grant colleges were created in the 19th century and helped make America the world’s breadbasket. That’s one reason why NNMI makes sense.

That’s not say that … Read the rest

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Laid-Back Higher Ed

More often than is warranted, Washington embraces consensus positions based on the view “we all know this to be true.” One of these is “well, while K-12 education is a mess, we all know that American higher education is the best.” There is increasing evidence the last half of this consensus view is not true.

The latest evidence of this is an article in today’s Washington Post that relies on data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) showing today’s college students spend about 40 percent less time studying than they did a half century ago. While everyone focuses on getting 6 years olds to spend every waking moment doing homework and giving up summer vacations so they can go to school (a great idea if we want to rob children of childhood), we are going in the opposite direction when it comes to college.

As I wrote in a blog on Huffington Post, “The Failure of American Higher Education,” American higher education is no longer adequately educating students – not just on STEM as we have written about, but on the broad capabilities of being … Read the rest