After all, the Department of Defense built the Internet. Government research and development also resulted in transistors, silicon chips, radar, jet planes, satellites, artificial limbs, cortisone, flat panel displays, and more. “Almost everything about your computer today – and how you use it – comes from government funds at an early stage,” emphasize economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson in their recent book Jump-Starting America.
Why? Because basic research is usually too insecure and too expensive for a company to afford. Often it is not even clear which future products research could create. No kitchen appliance manufacturer would ever have thought of conducting the military research that led to the microwave oven.
With Covid, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines draw on years of government-funded (and sometimes government-run) research into viral proteins and genetics. This research, explains Kaiser Health News, is “essential to the rapid development of vaccines in response to Covid-19”.
Federal aid has accelerated this year. The government has funded Moderna’s work over the past few months as part of the billions it spent making a record-breaking vaccine possible, writes Ed Yong of the Atlantic.
What are the lessons for the post-covid world? Solving the biggest challenges like climate change will almost certainly depend on a combination of public funding and ingenuity from the private sector.
Still, Federal funding for science has become a smaller part of the US economy than it used to be. That means the Covid vaccine is both an inspiring success and an exception. “On its current course,” write economists, “it seems unlikely that America will continue its dominance of invention.”
That’s it for this briefing. Until next time.
David Leonhardt wrote today’s background story. Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh took the break from the news. You can reach the team at email@example.com.
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