Continuing comments on the questions posed by the Commerce Department’s Competitiveness study RFI (see here, here, here and here), we turn to a cluster of topics and questions concerning knowledge creation and dissemination.
The questions posed in topic #1 (government R&D) and #5 (incentives to innovate) can be taken together.
Topic #1 – Government research and development – asks the following questions:
How can the economic impacts of basic research funding (e.g., NSF, NIH) be better measured and evaluated? What methods can the Federal Government use to prioritize funding areas of basic research, both within an area of science and across areas of science? How can existing Federal government institutions (not just organizations, but also programs, policies, and laws) devoted to basic research and innovation be improved? Are there new institutions of these types that are needed to achieve national innovation goals? How could the government increase support for industry-led, pre-competitive R&D?
Topic #5 – Incentives to innovate – asks:
How could the government better use incentives (including but not limited to procurement, Advanced Market Commitments, incentive prizes, and aggregation of demand) to promote innovation? Are there other economically-sound incentives that the government should provide?
Taken together, these cover the push and pull of technology development. The government R&D questions cover funding resource in. The incentives questions cover the demand pull. But, as I noted in the overview, the formulation of these questions are too narrow — especially the focus on basic research. We need to take a step back as ask what is the intangible asset we wish to create. From that point of view, the intangible asset is the creation, dissemination and utilization of knowledge. The first question to be asked what is the role of the government in the creation and diffusion of knowledge? What resources can the government provide to the creation process? What governmental actions can create a demand for the creation and utilization of knowledge?
To answer those question there should first be an inventory of all government support for the creation intangible knowledge assets – directly and indirectly. By looking at this inventory, it will become clear that the government is involved in much more that support for basic research. The federal government creates important knowledge assets in the form of government statistics. It creates other forms of information assets in the form of standards. It supports organizational research and evaluation activities — both academic and for agencies purposes.
The review would provide a basis for understanding the range and types of knowledge creation and dissemination activities and mechanisms. That would include creating a better understanding of support for non-scientific and technical research and place such support in its proper context. In the context of the broader goal of knowledge creation and dissemination,
A review would also place in context the demand side questions of how to use most effectively use procurement and activities that aggregate demand. Different forms and areas of knowledge creation might require different types of demand side incentives. The review would be a starting point of understanding the different needs and effectiveness of the different approaches.
Topic #3 covers Intellectual Property (IP) and is related to the question of incentives. The questions the RFI ask are:
What are the key elements of any legal reform effort that would ensure that our intellectual property system provides timely, high quality property rights and creates the best incentives for commercial innovation? How can the intellectual property system better serve the dual goals of creating incentives for knowledge creation while also ensuring that knowledge is widely diffused and adopted and moves to its best economic and societal uses?
IP is a key incentive that is a legal market creating activity rather than a direct financial means of creating a market. IP is essentially a government-grant of a monopoly right, granted, as Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution states, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” “By securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”, as the rest of Clause 8 states, IP regulates the marketplace to creates a financial incentive for invention and creation. The questions in this area should be seen in this context of the overall goal of creating incentives to innovation.
But the structure of IP in the specific form of patents covers both incentives for creation and incentives for dissemination. The alternative IP protection to patents is trade secrets — which are very different in terms of dissemination. To obtain a patent, the knowledge must be disclosed – rather than be kept secret. The implicit trade off in patents is that protection is granted in return for disclosure. That disclosure is critical for the information flow needed to support entrepreneurial activities, as discussed in an earlier posting. Transfer of knowledge become next to impossible if there is no knowledge about the knowledge. To be effective, however, the IP system must work with other forms of dissemination. Merely disclosing may not be enough to induce dissemination.
Thus, an additional question is in order. How do the incentives for knowledge creation and dissemination under the intellectual property system either support or conflict with other forms of incentives and mechanisms for knowledge creation and dissemination?
The final part of the set of knowledge creating topics in the RFI is #10: Enhancing the exchange of idea. The RFI asks the following:
How can public policy better promote the exchange of ideas among market participants–that is, support “markets for technology”–that enhance the social value of innovations? Similarly, how can the government assist in the diffusion of best practices? Given that ideas and knowledge cannot be traded as readily as are physical goods, what is the government’s role in supporting more effective markets?
The first two topics of focus on the creation part of the issue of knowledge creation and dissemination. IP has a dual focus of creation and dissemination. This last set of questions hones in on the dissemination issue. Yet, it seems to look at only one mechanism of exchange: knowledge markets. Knowledge markets is an important concept. But it is only one form of knowledge exchanges. The question should be broadened. How can public policy promote the exchange of ideas and the flow of knowledge? What policies, programs and activities can help or hinder the dissemination of knowledge? What are the various mechanisms for knowledge flows and dissemination and which are best suiting in which circumstances?
Under this broader question should be a review of the range of government policies affecting the flow of information and knowledge. Currently, these policies are in separate silos such as privacy, intellectual property rights, “right-to-know” policies, terms of access to government data and data collection/statistical policy. All of these policy areas approach knowledge, information and data as an intangible asset. But they assess and value that asset in very different ways. A common approach to this intangible assets across the various silos may not be either possible or desirable. But a more coordinated approach that is at least cognizant of the overlap and tensions among the various policy areas would help ensure that more nuanced and appropriate policies could be crafted.