Romney Joins Conservative Innovation Hawks with New Economic Plan

September 7, 2011 | Alex Trembath,

In an effort to distinguish themselves from the pack, and in anticipation of tonight's debate, the various Republican presidential candidates are stepping forward with their own well-tailored plans to spur economic recovery and "renew American greatness." In the process, Mitt Romney stands out in favor of federal investment in innovation, particularly in the clean tech sector, joining a growing cadre of influential conservative "innovation hawks" who advocate sensible and bipartisan policies for growing the economy.

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and leading Republican candidate for president, released his economic plan yesterday. The hefty report, "Believe in America," (PDF) comes in at 160 pages and describes Romney's 59-point plan to "revitalize our economy and to reignite the job-creating engine of the United States." One of his seven central areas of focus is energy, and his proposed policies go beyond the boilerplate "drill, baby, drill" and "cap-and-tax" GOP rhetoric. Indeed, Romney's energy plan adopts an encouraging agenda centered around innovation, R&D, and limited direct public investment.

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The plan does include some of the familiar calls to "get government out of the way," particularly with regards to oil drilling and transport permitting. But the report also acknowledges that government has a "role to play in innovation in the energy industry." Just as Breakthrough's research demonstrates in our report "Where Good Technologies Come From," the Romney plan states that "history shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology." The Republican candidate's report also calls for "long-term funding" mechanisms and lauds the ARPA-E program as an effective way to drive innovation.

Romney's advocacy for innovation is timely, as many federal energy policies are on the verge of expiration and several other influential conservatives have recently embraced innovation as a path towards energy independence and economic renewal. Conservative commentator and Manhattan Institute Fellow Jim Manzi recently wrote in The New Republic that "we should dramatically increase the budgets of our most successful government and government-backed university R&D institutions: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Caltech, and so on." He concludes his argument by admitting that in the pursuit of innovation and public investment, "taxes will have to rise," but that such investments will be "money well spent."

Jonathan Adler, professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, held a similar view in a recent dialogue in the New York Times. His proposed energy and pollution policies "would embrace technological innovation and ecological entrepreneurship," and he notes that "restoring rationality to environmental policy is not as simple as shuttering the E.P.A."

Manzi and Adler join conservative colleagues like David Brooks, Mort Kondrake, Jim Rogers, and George Will in their support for innovation and public investment. This growing club of innovation hawks is a hallmark of the viability and cross-partisan attraction of such an agenda. Mitt Romney's path through the Republican primary process will only bring more light on the conservative innovation agenda. But where conservatives are more frequently prescribing effective and sensible policy solutions to our energy and economic challenges, they often fall short in realizing the full role of the federal government in driving innovation and investment in America's future.

Government's role is not simply to step in and fix "market failures," as it does by investing in basic science where there is no predictable commercial benefit. Government is also a key player in investment, invention, and innovation. The federal government is responsible for the innovation platforms that resulted in the computer and cell phone industries, as well as radio and television. The interstate highway system and the Internet, two of the greatest conveyors of commercial activity (bricks and clicks, respectively), are products of huge and sustained government investment. This is to say nothing of the jet engine, countless blockbuster pharmaceutical advances, and indeed, every 20th century energy-generating technology, from hydro and nuclear power to wind, solar, and gas-fired turbines, each of which received support from the federal government in the form of early-stage research, subsidization, insurance, and/or procurement.

Romney's own section on energy is partly confused, perhaps because it does not fully acknowledge the link between government investment and the advanced energy economy. Whereas it begins with a call for investment in "advanced technology," the report later suggests that government investment should stop at basic research, beyond which it claims that the private sector is most suited for the job. Indeed, America's true economic history paints a stark contrast, and shows that government must continue to actively partner with and support private sector innovators and entrepreneurs to drive innovation and deployment of emerging technologies in strategic sectors.

Two recent works by experts in the field show how valuable the government has been in driving technological innovation and economic growth. The first is State of Innovation, a compilation of case studies edited by Breakthrough Senior Fellow Fred Block demonstrating the many and varied tools the government uses to drive innovation and deployment of emerging technologies. The second is a book by UK-based Mariana Mazzucato called The Entrepreneurial State, in which it is revealed that the government is a key player not just in the regulation of markets, but in their creation. As Ms. Mazzucato writes, "from the development of aviation, nuclear energy, computers, the internet, the biotechnology revolution, nanotechnology and even now in green technology, it is, and has been, the state not the private sector that has kick-started and developed the engine of growth."

Technological innovation is not a story of government versus the private sector. As in past efforts, the two must proceed as partners - or fail alone. While conservative calls for innovation and investment in clean tech are welcome, these emerging innovation hawks must not sell short the federal government's ability to lead us to a prosperous and secure clean energy future.