Obama Gets Innovation Upside-Down

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama spent a lot of time on innovation, regulation, and jobs–that’s good. Unfortunately, in all three cases he got his priorities upside down.

Let’s start with innovation.  I counted how many words the President devoted to different areas of innovation.

  • 2 words for biomedical research, the area where the U.S. is far ahead of the rest of the world.
  • 68 words devoted to extolling the job-creating virtues of space travel and NASA, an agency which currently has no mission unless it gets a lot more money.
  • 113 words for  highspeed-wireless broadband, a worthy goal.
  • 361 words in favor clean energy, a technology where the U.S. has little competitive advantage over the rest of the world.

In other words, Obama spent his time lauding our least competitive areas of innovation, while giving the back of his hand to biomedical research, the area where we have the clear global advantage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at these two charts.  When it comes to life sciences, the U.S. is way ahead. U.S. companies account for 44% of   R&D spending by life sciences companies around the world in 2010, according to etimates by Battelle/R&DMagazine.  And U.S. government support for health research is unsurpassed, accounting for 70% of  global public sector funding.

On the other hand, the U.S. support for  energy research is mediocre, at best. U.S. companies account for only 25% of global energy R&D spending by businesses.  And in 2008, before Obama took over, the U.S. government funding for energy R&D accounted for only 20% of the global public sector spending on energy R&D.  That’s pitiful.

Here’s what a recent R&D Magazine piece says about U.S. energy R&D:

the level of R&D spending in the U.S. energy sector is small in absolute terms and as a percent of revenue (0.3%) when compared with other sectors. For example, the total amount of private sector investment in all forms of energy research in our portfolio would likely amount to little more than half of the leading life science R&D investor, Merck, or the leading software/IT R&D investor, Microsoft, both of which invested more than $8.4 billion in R&D in 2009.

Mr. President, every time you talk about clean energy creating jobs, you are placing your bet on the wrong horse.  Communications and biosciences are the best bets we have in the near-term.

Now we come to regulation. I’m afraid once again the President started out right, and ended upside-down. He began by explaining how he would get rid of rules that imposed an unnecessary burden (29 words). But then he spends triple the time ( 102 words) defending his administration’s regulatory efforts.  He should have stopped while he was ahead.

Finally, we come to jobs, which were spread through the whole speech. This is my ‘soft’ count of how many times the word ‘jobs’ were mentioned in connection  with various areas of the economy (your count may differ)

  • IT-1
  • Space-1
  • Clean energy –2
  • Education–3
  • Infrastructure –2
  • Exports–4

Exports got the most mentions as a source of jobs—-but no mention of imports, and no mention of the fact that our trade deficit in advanced technology products hit an all-time record in November, going into double digits for the first time.  The reason? Imports of advanced technology products have surged, while exports are basically flat.  Before worrying about exports, we should worry about recapturing some of the jobs lost to imports.

About Michael Mandel 127 Articles

Michael Mandel was BusinessWeek's chief economist from 1989-2009, where he helped direct the magazine's coverage of the domestic and global economies.

Since joining BusinessWeek in 1989, he has received multiple awards for his work, including being honored as one of the 100 top U.S. business journalists of the 20th century for his coverage of the New Economy. In 2006 Mandel was named "Best Economic Journalist" by the World Leadership Forum.

Mandel is the author of several books, including Rational Exuberance, The Coming Internet Depression, and The High Risk Society.

Mandel holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.

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