Who could resist reading a blog post titled, “How Thomas Edison, Mark Zuckerberg and Iron Man are holding back American innovation”? Writing for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Suzy Khimm reports on a conference held by the New America Foundation on the grand topic of “How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.”
So how are those three very different heroes (one of whom, of course, is fictional) stifling the invention that our economy could use so desperately right now?
Eric Isaacs, director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, insisted at the event, “Romantic myths about creative loners can’t be allowed to overshadow the fact that it’s a big collective enterprise ... a multidisciplinary team, a system designed to maximize discovery.”
Khimm elaborated: “The problem is, the myth of the lone genius toiling away still reigns supreme in the eyes of ordinary Americans and politicians alike.” That means government funding in research and development is focused on handing money to smart people, and then leaving them alone to think, experiment, and create.
That model’s all wrong, according to some of New America’s speakers. As Khimm continued, “Too often, [Isaacs] argued, the conversation about R&D in Washington ends up stopping at that first phase: funding basic research aimed at letting scientists make their discoveries in peace.”
In other words, Isaacs believes the government isn’t doing enough to encourage innovation because lawmakers don’t understand how it works. Khimm quoted some of the event’s other experts making similar comments.
Isaacs, you might or might not be surprised to learn, isn’t a trailblazer in the mold of Edison. He’s the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, a United States Department of Energy institution.
Thomas Edison, on the other hand, gained his 1,000-plus patents without the help of a government bureaucracy. His first “patron,” you might say, was the inventor Franklin Leonard Pope, who encouraged the young Edison and gave him a place to room and conduct research. (Pope is an example of the risk the best and brightest often take on: He died of electrocution in his home’s basement lab when he was just 54.)
A list of other larger-than-life (or mythic, as Isaacs would have it) “creative loners” who did their work without government support would be a long one. Let’s start just with the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla (a poor Serbian immigrant who raised money from capitalists such as J.P. Morgan).
It’s these (often difficult) men who, having once caught the inspiration bug themselves, serve as inspiration for future generations of inventors. Perhaps Isaacs is right and these “myths” scare some government funding away. But there’s no question that the stories of great men—and it’s true, as Newton had it, that they sometimes stood on the shoulders of giants—and their visions encourage innovation far more than they could ever obstruct it. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to take a contemporary example, kindled an entire generation of computer geeks, some of whom went on to become nearly as famous as the founders of Microsoft and Apple.
It was Edison’s vision—some might say obsession—that was the spark for his many gifts to mankind. But the head of a government research lab, who believes all discovery is a “collective” activity, can’t conceive how much a single person is capable of accomplishing. As Isaacs told the New America conference, “Edison was nothing more than director of a great laboratory.”
Nothing more? Perhaps Isaacs is simply trying to compare his own job to that of a (flawed) genius. Edison might have been, in fact, the first “director of a great laboratory.” But that lab—whose staff at one point included Tesla, before he became Edison’s rival—would never have existed if not for the early successes of an inventive and inspired young man who worked tirelessly, experimenting on his own, without the “benefit” of government-directed funding.