America’s Secret Weapon

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates writes when the U.S. invests in innovation, it creates companies and jobs at home, makes Americans healthier and safer, and saves lives and fights poverty in the world's poorest countries. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Bill Gates

April 18 – This presidential election has the country captivated. As many commentators have pointed out, the primaries are more focused on personalities than policy. While the parties focus on who is going to represent them in the fall, I want to make the case for something that I hope every candidate will agree on in November: America’s unparalleled capacity for innovation. When the United States invests in innovation, it creates companies and jobs at home, makes Americans healthier and safer, and saves lives and fights poverty in the world’s poorest countries. It offers the next president a tremendous opportunity to help people in America and around the world.

Of course, America’s capacity for innovation is nothing new. We have been inventing for more than two centuries: think of Benjamin Franklin, Margaret Knight, Thomas Edison. By the end of World War II, the United States led the world in automobiles, aerospace, electronics, medicine, and other areas. Nor is the formula for success complicated: Government funding for our world-class research institutions produces the new technologies that American entrepreneurs take to market.

What is new is that more countries than ever are competing for global leadership, and they know the value of innovation. Since 2000, South Korea’s research and development spending (measured as a percentage of GDP) has gone up 90 percent. China’s has doubled. The United States’ has essentially flatlined. It’s great that the rest of the world is committing more, but if the United States is going to maintain its leading role, it needs to up its game.

I have seen first-hand the impact that this type of research can have. I was lucky enough to be a student when computers came along in the 1960s. At first they were very expensive, so it was hard to get access to them. But the microchip revolution, made possible by U.S. government research, completely changed that. Among other things it enabled Microsoft, the company I co-founded, to write software that made computers an invaluable tool for productivity. Later, the Internet – another product of federal research – changed the game again. It is no accident that today most of the top tech companies are still based in the United States, and their advances will have a massive impact in every area of human activity.

My favorite example is health. America’s investment in this area creates high-paying jobs at universities, biotech companies, and government labs. It leads to new treatments for disease, such as cancer therapies. It helps contain deadly epidemics like Ebola and Zika. And it saves lives in poor countries. Since 1990, the fraction of children who die before age 5 has fallen by more than half. I think that’s the greatest statistic of all time, and the United States deserves a lot of credit for making it happen.

The next few years could bring even more progress. With a little luck we could eradicate polio, a goal that is within reach because of vaccines developed by U.S. scientists. (Polio would be the second disease ever eradicated, after smallpox in 1979 – in which the United States also played an irreplaceable role.) There is also exciting progress on malaria: The number of deaths dropped more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2012, thanks in part to America’s support for breakthrough tools like drugs and bed nets. But to make the most of these opportunities, we need to invest more in basic health research and specific areas like vaccines.

Energy is another great example. American-funded research defines the state of the art in energy production. Early advances in wind and solar technology were developed with federal money. And this research offers a strong return on investment. Between 1978 and 2000, the Department of Energy spent $17.5 billion (in today’s dollars) on research on efficiency and fossil fuels, yielding $41 billion in economic benefits. Yet, until this year, the DOE’s research budget hasn’t seen a real increase since the Reagan administration.

If we step up these investments, we can create new jobs in the energy sector and develop the technologies that will power the world – while also fighting climate change, promoting energy independence, and providing affordable energy for the 1.3 billion poor people who don’t have it today. Some of the more promising areas include making fuel from solar energy, much the way plants do; making nuclear energy safer and more affordable; capture and storing carbon; and creating new ways to store energy that let us make the most of renewables.

There’s a lot of momentum right now on clean energy research. Last year, the leaders of 20 countries, including the United States, committed to double federal investments in this area. Complementing that crucial effort, I helped launch the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of private investors who will back promising clean-energy companies. The next president will have a chance to accelerate this momentum.

Investing in R&D isn’t about the government picking winners and losers. The markets will do that. It’s about doing what we know works: making limited and targeted investments to lay a foundation for America’s entrepreneurs. This approach has been fundamental to U.S. leadership for decades, and it will become only more important in the years ahead.

By the end of this summer, the political parties will have chosen their leaders and will start looking ahead to the November election. The nominees will lay out their vision for America and their agenda for achieving it. These visions will probably have more differences than similarities. But I hope we can all agree that, no matter how you see America’s future, there will always be an essential role for innovation.


Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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