Shiller on innovation….

Robert Shiller’s NYT column this morning is about the centrality of individual innovation to national success. It’s here. What makes the piece exceptional to me however is Shiller writing about his own trajectory which of course combined being a Yale economics professor with an entrepreneurial bent that led to the creation a very famous real estate index.

Even more interesting to me is that Shiller attributes the origin of his success outside the academy to the support of the National Science Foundation. Money quote:

Long before I started any commercial ventures of my own, I received some federal government support — in the form of National Science Foundation research grants, awarded to me decades ago as a young professor. They allowed me to do research, and though it was not directly related to my later business endeavors, the process developed my expertise and reinforced a sense of entrepreneurial opportunity.

I’m currently serving a term on the NSF’s Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate–that’s the piece of NSF that supports young economists, future Shillers of the world. Today’s column makes that service feel all the more useful.

Bell Labs: The Legacy Lives On….

John Gertner’s fine piece on Bell Labs in today’s NY Times is here. Most interesting to me is the notion of proximity of really bright people as being key to success in science. This is central to what we do at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study and why I am working so hard to bring Phase III to fruition, so that all of us at the Institute are finally under one roof.

Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal on the fix we are in

A dark view of where we are these days….it’s here.

Money quote:

Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. I am not aware of a single political leader in the U.S., either Democrat or Republican, who would cut health-care spending in order to free up money for biotechnology research — or, more generally, who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects. Robert Moses, the great builder of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or Oscar Niemeyer, the great architect of Brasilia, belong to a past when people still had concrete ideas about the future. Voters today prefer Victorian houses.

Innovation, Steve Johnson’s perspective

Entrepreneur and author Steve Johnson has a piece in today’s Sunday NY Times on innovation here. His point is that a whole lot of what most of us would consider the core of technology innovation doesn’t come from corporate R&D (writ large) but rather from a combination of academic, government-sponsored and even amateur sectors–a investment area he calls “the fourth quadrant”.

That’s true, but regardless, there’s a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat!

I think the core question is not where the innovation is coming from, but rather how to identify true paradigm-breaking discovery from the same old same old. It’s not entirely obvious to me. There was an obscure predecessor to the Web called gopher that, in the infancy of the Internet, had many of the features of the Web, but with more of a hierarchical text focus. It sure seemed innovative at the time. But of course, most of AS’s loyal readers wont have heard about it. Somehow, it was innovative, but not innovative enough.

By the same token, the early Web browsers (e.g. Mosaic) were incredibly clunky. But the seed for a paradigm shift was there in Mosaic 1.0 and, in the end, it wasn’t in gopher.