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Life Sciences

organic farm

Organic Farm Supporters Seek Special Treatment

A March 3, 2014 story from Reuters by Carey Gillam presents claims by organic farmers that the federal government needs to step in to prevent “contamination” of their fields. So what is the problem that has organic growers hunting for help?

According to the press release uncritically recycled by Reuters, “Growing crops free from contamination by genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on those biotech versions is getting more difficult and more costly for U.S. farmers, and new government rules to control contamination are needed, according to [sic] report… by an environmental organization and an organic food group.”

The first problem with the story is the use of the term “contamination.” What does it mean to “contaminate” something? According to Merriam-Webster, to “contaminate” means “to make something dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it.” So is it the right word to use in this context?

Farming is not a sterile endeavor. Farmers literally work in the dirt, and try as they might, it can be a very messy business. Harvests invariably reflect this truth, and nobody who’s ever spent any time on

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Peer Review – Where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning!

“This is a peer-reviewed study!”

In the increasingly heated battles waged lately by crusaders against innovation in agriculture, such assertions are increasingly thrown down like a gauntlet. The intent is to negate findings by regulators and scientists around the world that crops and foods improved through biotechnology are safe. These advocates argue passionately that “paper X”, published in a scientific journal after being reviewed by anonymous scientists and an editor, is sufficient to overturn the findings of hundreds of previously published reports (see to say nothing of the vast experience accumulated through the consumption of trillions of meals derived from biotech improved crops since they first entered the marketplace in the mid 1990s. When these papers are criticized by scientists post-publication, cries of censorship and persecution inevitably arise, and are routinely coupled with claims that the critics are bought and paid for by vested corporate interests (see and But the noisemakers overlook something fundamental about the culture of science:  where they thought peer review ended -is really where it gets going.

Peer Review – What is it?

Like so much of Western thought, the idea

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USDA Headquarters

Observations on the President’s Budget in Agriculture

Budget proposals – Presidential or Congressional – too often are more political Kabuki than serious policy, and the risk of smoke and mirrors is directly proportional to budget pressure. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find in the President’s most recent budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture less theater than past experience would predict, as well as some genuinely sound policy.

ITIF has pointed out the sizeable discrepancy between present levels of support for agricultural research and development and those that would be commensurate to addressing the challenges facing agriculture over the next 40 years. We estimate that to meet the dual stresses of population growth and climate change on food production, existing agricultural research budgets should be tripled and focused on basic research and innovation that can drastically improve crop productivity and resiliency. This is the only way we will be able to meet food demand, which is expected to double by 2050.

The President’s budget proposal takes a significant step in the right direction by increasing funds for competitive grants in agricultural research by 45% over 2012 levels. In a time when the overall budget

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President Obama Calls for Creation of a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation in State of the Union Address

In his State of the Union address this evening, President Obama called on Congress to support creation of a network of at least fifteen manufacturing innovation institutes that would bring together industry, universities, community colleges, federal agencies, and states to accelerate innovation by investing in industrially relevant manufacturing technologies with broad applications. The first institute in this network, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, launched in Youngstown, Ohio in August 2012 to pioneer additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies and tonight the President announced the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs “where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.

As ITIF explains in Why America Needs a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, these institutes are poised to play a pivotal role in spurring U.S. industrial competitiveness and revitalizing American manufacturing by helping bridge the gap between basic research and product development, providing shared assets to help companies (including small- to medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs) access cutting-edge capabilities and equipment, and creating a compelling environment in which to educate and train

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Salmon Preparation Board

Salmon: Not Out of the Woods Yet

On December 21, 2012, the Food and Drug Administration published a draft environmental assessment for a new variety of salmon that promises to benefit the health and wallets of consumers, reduce dramatically the environmental impacts some have linked to conventionally farmed salmon, and reduce over-fishing pressure on wild salmon stocks. The publication of this EA is noteworthy because it marks at least a temporary elevation of facts, reason, and innovation-friendly policy over ignorance, mendacity, and what appears to have been ill-considered political interference with science-based and pro-innovation policies with a long history of strong, bipartisan support.

The document should have been published more than a year ago. But as is often the case with pathbreaking innovations, its road has been marked by unexpected bumps and potholes.  It finally looked as if the path to publication was clear last April, when movement suddenly stopped without explanation. The story is well told in SLATE , by Jon Entine, who has ferreted out indications that it was put on hold out of fears its publication might anger a portion of President Obama’s most fervent base, a calculation of elevated political significance in an

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Pharmaceutical Innovation and Longevity

Recently, I wrote a piece outlining the big-benefits from big-pharma, and this last week another working paper hit the NBER stands highlighting even more starkly the real effect drug vintage is having on human life-expectancy.  No, we aren’t talking about immortality, but wouldn’t you like to have another 4 months to live with your friends and family? That is exactly what Frank Lichtenberg of Columbia University found was the increase in life-expectancy that can be directly attributed to the increases in drug vintage experienced between 1996 and 2003.

Lichtenberg, using exceptional data from individual patient records, “investigate[s] whether patients using newer drugs in a given year remain alive longer than patients using older drugs, controlling for many important patient characteristics.”

He finds that “between 1996 and 2003, the mean vintage of prescription drugs increased by 6.6 years. This is estimated to have increased life expectancy of elderly Americans by 0.41-0.47 years. This suggests that not less than two-thirds of the 0.6-year increase in the life expectancy of elderly Americans during 1996-2003 was due to the increase in drug vintage. The 1996-2003 increase in drug vintage is also

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US New Asia Investment GMO Plants

Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated

This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been “genetically modified (GM)” should come with a special GM label.  Proponents of proposition 37, or the “Right to Know” initiative, argue that “in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,” i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?

First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to “nudge” consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to “nudge” people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory

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Image of an Empty Lab

Why Aren’t the Jobs There for U.S. Scientists?

On Sunday, July 8, the Washington Post published an article arguing that the U.S. has pushed for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there. While the article noted that job markets for physicians and physicists remain strong (with unemployment rates for those professions less than 2 percent), jobs are sparser for those holding biology or chemistry Ph.D.’s. In particular, the unemployment rate for chemists is the highest it’s been in 40 years and U.S. drug firms have cut 300,000 jobs since 2000. The challenge is particularly acute for recent Ph.D.’s, as just 38 percent of new Ph.D. chemists were employed in 2011.

There are of course many reasons for employment shortages in these fields but perhaps the two most prominent are stagnating federal investment in key scientific fields such as life sciences and faltering U.S. innovation-based competitiveness. Due to unsatisfactory regulatory, tax, talent, technology, and trade policies, the United States has become a less attractive location for globally mobile investment in R&D and production activity. This trend is presented in detail in a forthcoming book by ITIF President Rob Atkinson and myself,  Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage

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Federal Funding for R&D: Further Evidence That It Is Needed More Than Ever Before

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management CoverIn an era of ever tightening budget constraints, some, especially some conservatives now argue that federal funding for research is not critical for innovation. They claim that the private sector will make up for any losses in innovation resulting from a reduction in federal funding of R&D. In the latest edition of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (devoted to the examination of science policy and innovation), two scholarly articles clearly rebut this view.

Furman et al. argue that even modest science policy shifts can have a significant influence  on the composition of research as well as the pattern of international R&D collaboration. They find that following the United States’ 2001 policy, which banned the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research (hESC); U.S. production of hESC scientific research lagged 35 to 40 percent below anticipated levels.  In other words, cutting federal funding for particular areas of science R&D results in significantly less innovation in that area.

At the broader level, Blume-Kohout presents similar results. However, this study relates to the benefits of increasing federal research support to research output. Specifically, it is revealed that increasing NIH funding

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A Word from the Wise is Sufficient

Some of the country’s most promising young scientists, in Washington this week to be honored at the White House, offered some useful insights for policymakers about the nation’s science innovation ecosystem: 1) The United States has a lot going for it– fine universities and talented, curious and innovative people eager to bring about monumental transformations, 2) Government funding is critical– often the only source for basic research and 3) Scale back on item #2 and you compromise #1.

At a press roundtable today recipients of Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) were unanimous in saying a steady and consistent funding stream helps maintain the country’s brain power and world class R&D infrastructure. It also begins a process that can lead to successful commercialization of ideas and discoveries.

Michael Escuti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, affirmed that money he has received from the National Science Foundation has leveraged private capital and led to a small business startup. His has pioneered the development of liquid crystal “polarization gratings” which could have a wide array of applications from battlefield communications to advanced cameras.

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