The Cost and the Rate of Innovation

Most of my colleagues and PhD students have exclaimed at some point or the other — if only I had been a researcher in an earlier time, my innovations would have been so much more impactful. This sometime happens when we look at the seemingly small increments that we make in our chosen field (Computer Science for me) and compare wistfully to the giant leaps that we read about or see portrayed in documentaries. It also feels at times that we are spending increasingly larger fraction of our efforts in securing funding for the research rather than on actually doing the research.

In this article, I examine two questions, seen through the lens of my area of Computer Science (broadly defined) and from my geography (USA):

  • Is there broad support for research and development in the US? Does that support wax and wane with geopolitical trends, like having a country like China making gargantuan investments and rapid leaps, at least in some niches?
  • Does the support translate to an accelerating or decelerating pace of innovation? Is it the sanguine outlook of low hanging fruit being taken and the higher hanging fruit being a little out of reach, or is it the brighter view that our creativity is increasing as is our ability to integrate prior discoveries and make rapid strides?

How Much Are We Willing to Spend on Innovation?

It turns out we are willing to spend a fair amount. In the US, we spend 3.45% of our GDP on research and development according to World Bank data, thus ranking 5th in the list of countries. There is obviously some ambiguity in how we define research and development. Modulo that, this amounts to roughly $725B currently. Take something that we academics would more clearly agree represents basic research funding — that by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The division within NSF that funds computing research is called CISE (Computer and Information Science and Engineering) and its budget for Fiscal Year 2022 is $1B (with small rounding down). The other agency that funds basic research, mainly in biomedical and clinical domains, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its budget is $45B.

A logical question is are we spending more over the years on innovation.

The slow and steady increase in funding for the National Science Foundation since its inception. This is a good proxy for funding in basic science and engineering. The graphic is courtesy Nature.

So the innovation funding has been chugging along at a gentle if not spectacular rate. While many of us would wish for a magic wand for this funding to increase dramatically, objectively the presence of a merit-driven organization like NSF or NIH is a great service to basic science and engineering. As I have looked around the world through my professional work (with IEEE Computer Society as a board member and others), it strikes me that this is not a norm even in the developed countries of the world. While most do have basic funding bodies like this, the presence of technically minded Program Managers, without axes to grind, and the use of a largely fair peer review system for funding decisions are rarities.

Now there is news aflutter that this funding for NSF is going to see quantum leap through bills being debated in both Houses, most poetically called the Endless Frontier Act. Recently, the CHIPS Act was authorized by both chambers and is slated to give a big boost to semiconductor research and development. These highlight what we have known for a while — geopolitical rivalry is good for funding for innovation. As we look in our rear view mirror and see the Chinese getting closer and closer, that gives that final trigger to our leaders to put the money where their mouth is. So in sum, it is good to see that US society does believe for the most part in the importance of funding for innovation, to sow the seeds which will bear fruit 5+ years into the future. It helps greatly when there is global competition for talent and for innovation, as there is increasingly now, from foes and friends.

What is the Rate at which Innovation is Delivering for Society?

I will continue this my thoughts on the above question in part 2.

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