Ideas for a New Industrial Policy
A DISCUSSION OFEncompassing the Innovation Panoply
William B. Bonvillian’s essay, “Encompassing the Innovation Panoply” (Issues, Winter 2022), is itself a panoply of ideas about how the United States can pursue a new industrial policy. These ideas are nested in the essay’s review of the intellectual history of the nation’s innovation policy, its stops and starts, and the deficiencies in the current US innovation system. Bonvillian offers pragmatic solutions empirically grounded in this history.
One of the author’s proposed innovations is to recenter the intellectual history of innovation policy to focus on John R. Steelman, an Alabama college professor who became director of the US Department of Labor and later special assistant to President Truman, rather than on Vannevar Bush as the key policy entrepreneur here. Bush is already known, albeit only to cognoscenti, for his work on science policy and the report Science, the Endless Frontier. Steelman, as Bonvillian notes, directed a much more comprehensive study of the federal government’s role in research and development, which called for more public funds to be devoted to R&D and for various federal agencies to play key roles in allocating funding. In this way, Bonvillian writes, “Steelman more than Bush may thus be the true architect of American science policy.”
A second, related innovation of the essay is to look at innovation as a dynamic process, unlike Bush’s linear model in which innovation occurs in a series of sequential stages. Bonvillian’s proposed solutions build upon this insight to call for a “systems of innovation approach” that recognizes innovation is a “multidirectional system, not a one-way street.”
Overall, the ideas that Bonvillian presents, and the historic resistance they have faced, bring to mind another system: “the antiseptic system” devised by the British surgeon Joseph Lister. Noticing how many surgical patients were dying of sepsis or gangrene, Lister challenged the idea that infection came from “bad air” and instead came from germs introduced during surgery. The medical establishment of the day was highly skeptical of this theory and approach. Lister introduced what he called “antiseptics” into surgery, and infection plummeted. Though it didn’t happen immediately, surgical practice eventually changed.
Bonvillian’s insights and evidence in this largely historical essay are similarly irrefutable. But will implementation of his policy solutions necessarily follow? I believe the answer is yes—but I am much less certain that the United States will be the country where this takes place. There are other countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea that are more open to evidence, unlike much of the US economic establishment, which resembles nothing so much as the pre-Listerian surgical establishment in England.