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Back when I was an MIT tour guide,
the annual research budget for MIT was
around $1 billion. Therefore, to spend
an extra $200 billion would mean building an extra 200 MITs. That would be
amazing, but how would you staff them?
The best people in the world are already
at MIT. You could start by hiring all the
scientists at second-tier schools to fill in
your new MITs. Pretty soon those schools
would be emptied out and they would
start pulling in people from third-tier
schools. At the end of the day, all you’ve
done is move people around.
This is one example of the law of
diminishing returns. We spend so much
on R&D today that spending more is
unlikely to do much good.
This is the problem we faced at the
White House back in 2006. The most
promising areas of research were already
well funded. The areas that remained
were lackluster. The problem wasn’t so
much in producing research but in getting
those ideas to market.
So the policy process led us to new
regulations that would help solve market
failures: new regulations for fuel-efficient
cars, new regulations for biofuels, loan
guarantees for renewable-energy ventures, and yes, some funding for research,
which resulted in ARPA-E. Yes, more
research funding can be worthwhile, but
primarily at the margins, not as the centerpiece of new legislation.
Altogether, these policies became the
Energy Security and Independence Act
of 2007, which formed the cornerstone of
Obama’s lauded climate policy.
I do think R&D is worthwhile. I just
don’t believe in blind faith. We should
keep seeking new opportunities to do
more, but we shouldn’t assume money
will solve all our problems.
Ben Ho is an associate professor of economics
at Vassar College and Columbia University.
Companies Can’t Do It All
In “Make America Great Again,” Jason
Pontin is right to decry the Heritage Foundation’s position that government funding
for research is pointless and that private
companies should fund such research
instead. The idea that private companies
can fill the role of creating innovation—
whether in their own labs or by funding
university research—isn’t supported by
Strategy& (a PriceWaterhouseCoo-pers unit) studied the 1,000 most innovative companies for more than a decade
and found no relationship between
financial performance and R&D spending. The problem is that any company
large enough to fund research is instead
pressured to drastically cut spending and
show a return on investment.
Christopher Voigt is the chief technologist
The Evolution of Commenting
Ten years ago, websites had a responsibility to allow people to share their opinions freely in their comments sections. But
technology has moved on. Social media is
now dominant, and publications no longer
need to offer a free and open space for commentary (as Jason Pontin described in “Me
and My Troll,” May/June 2017). Instead,
publishers need to be more strategic about
Does Facebook wield too much power in
46% Yes, it’s too powerful
36% I’m not on Facebook
18% No, nothing wrong with it
Would you trust data from a smartphone
app to help predict and prevent addiction?
46% Yes, phones are powerful
28% No, it’s just an app
26% Only in mild cases
As climate dangers grow, is it time to
move ahead with geoengineering field
48% Yes, we’re out of options
37% Only if it’s small-scale
15% No, it’s too risky
how to utilize community conversation and
engagement as a vital part of their journalism. It’s a chance to reset who is interacting
with them and how. To do this, publishers need to define what success looks like,
and engage staff and resources toward that
goal. They need to experiment.
Our research at the Coral Project has
shown that when a site engages with its
audience in the right way, it improves
the journalism, creates new community
connections, and generates new revenue
Andrew Losowsky is the project lead at the
Coral Project at Mozilla.