Do we decide to invent the future? Is the future of technology decided by a government program? Is necessity the mother of invention? Or is it just about tickling people’s fancies and making a buck? In an increasingly affluent and technologically driven society, is there a mechanism that helps us decide where we focus engineering and development resources?
In recent years we seem to be more focused on the size of the market and how much money can be made in solving a particular problem. And that’s okay, making money keeps people employed, earning wages, spending money and paying taxes. All good stuff. Selling a million electric cars in the United States would be really cool. If we can make them at a price that will attract more buyers and run for less money than a gasoline car.
But the decision making process of the private capital system may not be what it used to be. The mechanism by which funding reaches research and development is increasingly in the hands of government bureaucrats. More than 50% of every research dollar will be committed based on a government program.
The Department of Energy oversees a budget of $26 billion. The system works by patronage and influence. The large program offices are able to increase their influence by offering to fund projects using matching fund requirements. So for every dollar offered, they get to control $2. Nice trick. So if the entire R&D expenditure of the US is $75 Billion, it is easy to see how government can literally control the majority of the work that is going to be done.
Does this leave room in the system for entrepreneurs and small start-up businesses? In a tight economy where there is very little liquidity, funding is hard to come by. And while R&D money isn’t the only way to get something started, the overall availability of funding becomes an issue.
More important, is this model of how we do R&D the way we, as Americans, want to do things here in the US? Government administrators are people just like the rest of us. They have their pet ideas and personal preferences. And like the rest of us, they can make mistakes. Sometimes more that the rest of us. So mistakes like Solyndra and Beacon Tech get made on a regular basis. Some guy in DoE with limited expertise should not be deciding what technology is going to get funded.
So who gets to invent the future? You and me. Let’s go out there and do it.