Innovation in the face of budget cuts

“We will make the tough cuts necessary to achieve these savings, including in programs I care about, but I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs. We’ll invest in…clean energy technology….We will invest in education and job training. We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.”
Barack Obama, April 13, 2011, Georgetown University

The US government plays a critical role–protecting our citizens and property, overseeing our parks and a multitude of public services, providing medical care and education to millions of Americans–all of which need to be paid for every year in the federal budget. Those functions were in jeopardy on a weekly and at times daily basis as Congress and the Administration haggle over serious policy and funding issues in an effort to pass the fiscal 2011 budget.

The impact of these negotiations will last far longer than one year; what is funded and what is gutted may very well determine the course our nation takes for the next decade or more. When education financing options get cut, we reduce the ability of young people from all walks of life to access the university system and become our next innovators. When science and research programs are cut, universities and labs have to look elsewhere for funding sources and will certainly cut back on positions. When we slash applied science and deployment programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency, we leave technology in the labs to languish in the Valley of Death and never make it to market.

We need to trim our budget but we need, as the President says, to do so without sacrificing what America does best—innovate.

“The challenge is not just about supporting the most promising growth sector of the
next several decades. It is about ensuring that America builds the next generation of energy
technologies that will be the bedrock of our economic competitiveness over the coming
century.”
Will Coleman, Partner, Mohr Davidow Ventures, before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Thursday March 17, 2011

Innovation may occur in the garage of a whiz kid, but, more likely than not, is seeded in a university or laboratory setting, nearly every one of which has some federal funding stream. The private sector funds research but is far less likely to take on risk that has no express business case or purpose for that particular industry. It is directed research. Real breakthroughs usually occur during those times of high risk in places no one has gone before. The federal government is in a unique position to support technology innovation not by picking winners and losers, but by taking on risk that can reap rewards to the benefit all of society. The market won’t do that until a technology is viable. The government can help get it to that point.

I once asked a colleague for assistance on a legislative issue and he posed a question that I now ask myself every time I think about the role of government: what does this mean for public policy? In other words, what is the problem and what solution will benefit the public in the long run? If we negotiate a budget that funds programs that are critical to the care of our citizenry as well as those that may not seem intuitively obvious since their benefits are longer term, the balance will enable us to maintain a competitive, productive nation. Let’s not confuse ideology with policy for federal budget funding; let’s make sure instead that we set up the right conditions to enable creativity and innovation.

So far the Administration believes in and is supporting these programs; let’s prove he’s right to keep them funded.

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About cleangridview
Smart grid and clean tech policy expert with nearly 30 years of experience with utilities, government, non-profits, and the private sector.

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