Innovation Conservatism

January 4, 2011 | Devon Swezey,

Bucking the conventional wisdom that newly empowered conservatives are out to cut government spending at all costs, an influential group of conservative voices has emerged to urge Congressional Republicans to take a more measured approach toward federal programs and challenge them to increase federal investment in science and technology.

In yesterday's Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will exhorted new Republican legislators to "rev the scientific engine" by increasing federal investment in research, arguing that such investments are the "pre-requisites for long-term economic vitality":

"Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions - corporations' research entities and research universities."

True fiscal conservatism, Will writes, means knowing that "making the government lean by cutting the most defensible--because most productive--federal spending is akin to making an overweight aircraft flight-worthy by removing an engine."

Will's view is very consonant with that put forward by the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute in Post-Partisan Power, which calls for investing in and reforming the nation's energy innovation system to foster collaboration among private sector, government, and university researchers, alongside other investors and private sector customers. These investments would be modeled after the sustained investments made in the 1940s, 50s and 60s that led to the rise of Silicon Valley.

According to Will, federal investment is a part of America's national history. Abraham Lincoln, America's first Republican President, supported the "American System," which stressed government investments in infrastructure and "internal improvements" to boost the productivity of the economy.

Late last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks issued a similar call to his conservative brethren, writing that the populist anti-government ideology taking root within the Republican Party is driven by an "oversimplified version of American history, with dangerous implications." Brooks reminded them that the history of American innovation and economic strength is "limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility."

Both Will and Brooks have called for major federal investments in new energy technologies, viewing America's ancient energy sector as a new opportunity to remake the American economy. Will recently called for mini-Manhattan projects to improve nuclear power plants, and Brooks has written that energy innovation is the railroad legislation of today.

A final conservative voice calling for federal investment in energy is the American Enterprise Institute's Steve Hayward, an acclaimed conservative scholar and Ronald Reagan historian, who last October joined the Breakthrough Institute and Brookings Institution in calling for $25 billion in energy innovation to make new energy technologies cheaper and more reliable.

Will, Brooks, and Hayward are emerging as new voices of "innovation conservatism," arguing that America's long and successful history of federal investment in technology and innovation must be maintained or even increased in the face of mounting fiscal deficits.

They recognize the bipartisan history of American innovation detailed by the Breakthrough Institute in our new report, "Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation": federal investment in science and technology is, quite simply, how America does innovation.

If the Republican Party heeds the calls of these innovation conservatives and gets back to their historical roots, cutting spending won't mean cutting investment, and the American economy will benefit.