Innovation is an important to have as an attitude and fundamental approach to business. And the government has often helped boost innovation, whether by funding groundbreaking research, providing contracts to companies of all sizes that had new approaches to old problems, or transferring technology to private parties for commercialization.
But as much as the government can help companies, it can also suddenly hurt them with a change in policy or regulations -- or the elimination of an expansive goal or project.
You can see the evidence in Congress at the moment as a bipartisan group try to protect NASA's plan to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s, as the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Senate Commerce Committee wants to solidify the agency's plans in a $19.5 billion authorization package. Aggressive and challenging goals are typically fuel for innovation, as scientists and engineers have to invent solutions to new problems and demands that seem impossible on the surface. Forcing researchers in government and industry to go beyond previous achievements is a form of tough love, in which experts have to innovate to solve problems. Big projects also typically come with big money to help fuel the efforts.
The problem? The coming election. Every new administration brings the potential for major changes in agencies as incoming chief executives decide what path they want to follow. Even a current president can shift directions, as with the Obama Administration cutting support for deep space exploration to help trim a budget.
The Senate committee, concerned that plans to push toward Mars might fall to the wayside, has tried to take action, as the Wall Street Journal wrote:
For the first time in such federal legislation, there is language explicitly calling for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to ultimately establish a human settlement on Mars. The bill says the agency ought to be aiming for "a capability to extend human presence, including potential human habitation, on the surface" of the planet by the end of the century.
Bipartisan support hopes to keep NASA on track and prevent budget cuts that could slow or stop progress.
For many companies, the long-term benefits could be big, including new conditions to advance specialty types of manufacturing, facilities where dangerous research could be undertaken without endangering surrounding communities, and the discovery of new sources of metals, minerals, and other materials.
A lot to like, but nothing that can be trusted. Congress cannot keep future lawmakers from changing budgets or keep a future president from redirecting groups that ultimately work for him.
And there's nothing to say that the House would have to join the Senate. Some critics say there is often a willingness to dismiss science, particularly when it clashes with political hot potatoes like human-caused climate change. Given that NASA is often involved in gathering data used in examinations of climate, the agency is hardly safe from attack.
Companies that are trying to innovate should welcome government resources when available, but to count on them for strategic innovation can be risky. Better to structure your plans to work without what the government can offer and then enjoy the extra resources, if and when they become available.