Debunking Myths About Private and Public Innovation

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
Sept. 1 2013 5:00 AM

It’s a Myth That Entrepreneurs Drive New Technology

For real innovation, thank the state.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during an event at Facebook headquarters on April 4, 2013 in Menlo Park, California.
Some of our hero worship of tech entrepreneurs like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would be better directed at the government.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Images of tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are continually thrown at us by politicians, economists, and the media. The message is that innovation is best left in the hands of these individuals and the wider private sector, and that the state—bureaucratic and sluggish—should keep out. A telling 2012 article in the Economist claimed that, to be innovative, governments must "stick to the basics" such as spending on infrastructure, education, and skills, leaving the rest to the revolutionary garage tinkerers.

Yet it is ideology, not evidence, that fuels this image. A quick look at the pioneering technologies of the past century points to the state, not the private sector, as the most decisive player in the game.

Whether an innovation will be a success is uncertain, and it can take longer than traditional banks or venture capitalists are willing to wait. In countries such as the United States, China, Singapore, and Denmark, the state has provided the kind of patient and long-term finance new technologies need to get off the ground. Investments of this kind have often been driven by big missions, from putting a human on the moon to solving climate change. This has required not only funding basic research—the typical "public good" that most economists admit needs state help—but applied research and seed funding too.

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Apple is a perfect example. In its early stages, the company received government cash support via a $500,000 small-business investment company grant. And every technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone owes its vision and funding to the state: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays, and even the voice-activated smartphone assistant Siri all received state cash. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency bankrolled the Internet, and the CIA and the military funded GPS. So, although the United States is sold to us as the model example of progress through private enterprise, innovation there has benefited from a very interventionist state.

The examples don't just come from the military arena, either. The U.S. National Institutes of Health spends about $30 billion every year on pharmaceutical and biotechnology research and is responsible for 75 percent of the most innovative new drugs annually. Even the algorithm behind Google benefited from U.S. National Science Foundation funding.

Across the world we see state investment banks financing innovation. Green energy is a great example. From Germany's KfW state bank to the Chinese and Brazilian development banks, state-run finance is playing an increasing role in the development of the next big thing: green tech.

In this era of obsession with reducing public debt—and the size of the state more generally—it is vital to dispel the myth that the public sector will be less innovative than the private sector. Otherwise, the state's ability to continue to play its enterprising role will be weakened. Stories about how progress is led by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have aided lobbyists for the U.S. venture capital industry in negotiating lower capital gains and corporate income taxes—hurting the ability of the state to refill its innovation fund.

The fact that companies like Apple and Google pay hardly any tax—relative to their massive profits—is all the more problematic, given the significant contributions they have had from the government. Thus, the "real" economy (made up of goods and services) has experienced a shift similar to that of the "financial" economy: The risk has been increasingly moved to the public sector while the private sector keeps the rewards. Indeed, one of the most perverse trends in recent years is that while the state has increased its funding of R&D and innovation, the private sector is apparently de-committing itself. In the name of "open innovation," big pharma is closing down its R&D labs, relying more on small biotech companies and public funds to do the hard stuff. Is this a symbiotic public-private partnership or a parasitic one?

It is time for the state to get something back for its investments. How? First, this requires an admission that the state does more than just fix market failures—the usual way economists justify state spending. The state has shaped and created markets and, in doing so, taken on great risks. Second, we must ask where the reward is for such risk-taking and admit that it is no longer coming from the tax systems. Third, we must think creatively about how that reward can come back.

There are many ways for this to happen. The repayment of some loans for students depends on income, so why not do this for companies? When Google's future owners received a grant from the NSF, the contract should have said: If and when the beneficiaries of the grant make $X billion, a contribution will be made back to the NSF.

Other ways include giving the state bank or agency that invested a stake in the company. A good example is Finland, where the government-backed innovation fund SITRA retained equity when it invested in Nokia. There is also the possibility of keeping a share of the intellectual property rights, which are almost totally given away in the current system.

Recognizing the state as a lead risk-taker, and enabling it to reap a reward, will not only make the innovation system stronger, it will also spread the profits of growth more fairly. This will ensure that education, health, and transportation can benefit from state investments in innovation, instead of just the small number of people who see themselves as wealth creators, while relying increasingly on the courageous, entrepreneurial state.

Mariana Mazzucato is an economist and professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, England. Her latest book is The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. She tweets at @MazzucatoM.