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Subsidizing America’s most important product: Innovation

To increase society’s supply of pickles, increase monetary demand for them. Increasing the supply of America’s most important product — innovation — is more complicated. It involves money that fertilizes a culture that nurtures talented individuals.

Solving the complexities of this is one purpose of the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which aims to disburse $100 billion over five years for the purpose of finding and supporting those who will shape the future of science. This is, inevitably, a process of a few spectacular hits among many misses.

The EFA is a perhaps unintentional homage to one source of American dynamism, immigration, because it implicitly embraces an insight of an immigrant from Austria, the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who in 1932 came to Harvard. His theory was that the principal drivers of social dynamism are not workers (as Marx thought) or various impersonal economic forces (as many economists thought) but innovators — inventors of new things and companies. Thomas Edison, working in his Menlo Park, N.J., “invention factory” — he eventually held 1,093 patents — was one. Others include Henry Ford, Thomas Watson, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

The template for successful government-fueled innovation began in September 1942 when the government purchased 58,575 acres of eastern Tennessee wilderness and created the town of Oak Ridge with state-of-the-art physics facilities. Thirty-four months later, an atomic blast lit the New Mexico desert. The Manhattan Project had a narrow focus: the problem of releasing and weaponizing the atom’s explosive energy.

The EFA’s challenge is to energize, for the long term, a broad, deep culture of basic science and the translation of its fruits into technologies. To appreciate the nation’s history of life-changing innovations, read “Capitalism in America” (2018) by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge.

In 1800, a farmer swinging a scythe could harvest an acre in a day. In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick’s threshing machine, developed 1833-1834, began displacing legions of farm laborers, who migrated to higher-productivity employments. Scientific agriculture today enables the nation to feed its 330 million and to export surpluses while tilling approximately the same amount of acreage as in 1910, when there were 238 million fewer Americans. Isaac Singer’s sewing machines, invented in the 1840s, “did as much as any invention in the nineteenth century to liberate women,” cutting the time to make a shirt from more than 14 hours to less than 1.5 hours. “Between 1920 and 2000,” Greenspan and Wooldridge write, “labor requirements per ton of raw steel decreased by a factor of a thousand, from more than three worker-hours per metric ton to just 0.003.”

To Americans with supercomputers, aka smartphones, in their pockets, the progress from scythes to threshing machines, from hand stitching to sewing machines, and from less to more efficient steelmaking might seem banal. The common denominator, however, is the restless, risk-taking spirit of a talented few.

The Constitution’s Framers intuited this. With their Enlightenment belief in applied knowledge, they gave patent protection constitutional status (Article 1, Section 8). In 1800, when England had two universities, the young republic had dozens. In the United States, especially, but elsewhere, too, applied knowledge produced something new: economic growth. According to one scholar’s calculation (Angus Maddison’s), between the birth of Jesus and the early 19th century, growth was about 0.11% a year — an anemic 11% a century.

Today, national security is an increasingly urgent reason for government support of basic science. Competition with China involves ever-more-sophisticated semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computers. Paul Sen’s new book, “Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe,” on the development of the science of thermodynamics, takes its title from a delightful fact that is pertinent to all this.

Einstein’s father and an uncle had been inventors and inveterate tinkerers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s — two decades after Einstein’s four path-blazing papers of 1905: mass-energy equivalence, etc. — he helped to design and patent a refrigerator using less hazardous coolants than were then used in many refrigerators. He enlisted the collaboration of a former student, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist and mathematician.

Their invention never made it to market, but as happens in science, one thing leads unpredictably to another. Szilard — like Einstein, a refugee from Nazi Germany — wrote the Aug. 2, 1939, letter that Einstein signed urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt “to speed up the experimental work” on the possibility of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type” utilizing “a nuclear chain reaction” in uranium. If the EFA succeeds, it will ignite chain reactions of creativity from a critical mass of gifted individuals.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writer’s Group.

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