According to former President Ronald Reagan, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

That thought, on display during Wednesday's presidential debates, is also at the heart of a battle raging between Democrats and Republicans, whose views about governement involvment in everything from health care and education to business are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, many Democrats assume business and governement can be partners. Together, they can put valuable consumer safety provisions in place or prevent too much risk-taking in markets, among other things. On the other, most Republicans assume that government involvement in business necessarily means interference, over-regulation and high taxes.

The latest voice in this debate is U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Invoking the atom-splitting Manhattan Project during World War II, and the creation of NASA to reach the moon in the 1960s, Pritzker addressed students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday morning to talk about how they can lead in innovation, with the help of Uncle Sam.

Innovation, particularly in science and technology, is responsible for one third to nearly half of all U.S. economic growth, the secretary said. That's why it's critical to foster and invest in as much innovation as possible, she added.

“We did not reach the moon or split the atom or find treatments and cures for countless diseases by under-investing in basic research,” Pritzker said. “We have led because innovation is the lifeblood of our economy--and because we have prioritized investments in cutting-edge technology and scientific discovery.”

Pritzker mentioned a number of programs that are helping to foster innovation. Though, she cautioned that the threat of a government shutdown and the fiscal restraint imposed by years of the 2013 sequester, which will cut more than $1 trillion in government spending through 2021, could be calamitous. She added that the impact on U.S. businesses may well be grave.

Here’s how Pritzker proposes using the federal government to fix our innovation quandary:

  • Enact comprehensive immigration reform: That would allow foreign students studying for advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects to have a path to citizenship. “We must ensure that the men and women who move here, who study here, who bring their skills here, and who start businesses and families here, are welcome to stay here in the United States of America,” Pritzker said, adding that 1.1 million foreign students currently study in U.S universities, and they make up 30 percent of MIT’s student body. And they also total 40 percent of U.S. candidates for advanced degrees in much-needed STEM fields.
  • Increase broadband access: Over 20 percent of homes in the U.S. have no connection to the Internet, and that puts the U.S at a technological disadvantage when training the next generation of inventors. Programs like the federal ConnectEd have goals of connecting 99 percent of students to the Internet with broadband and high-speed wireless in schools and libraries.
  • Provide money and assistance to regional innovation clusters: Regional Innovation Strategies grants can advance invention and job creation in communities across the country. In March, the Commerce Department announced $10 million in such grants to regional winners in locales ranging from Albany, New York to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
  • Bolster federal funding for key programs: Among others, idea incubators--such as MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics, one of the leading technology research labs in the world--are layups for supporting next-generation entrepreneurs.

As my colleague Ilan Mochari points out, the list doesn't stop there. Earlier this summer, for example, President Obama issued an executive order making permanent the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The program recruits entrepreners, executives and tech experts and teams them with governement employees to solve public sector challenges, for example identifying technology gaps for government, and helping the government identify priorities of citizens.

Partnerships between the federal government, schools and businesses may not be perfect, but they can serve as an important prop to our economy, and they've been the basis for some of the most important transformations in the U.S., and even human history. With that in mind, Pritzker also urged MIT's students to get invovled with helping create public policy themselves.

“From generation to generation, our nation has chosen to move forward by supporting the work of leaders at MIT and elsewhere to innovate, to develop new inventions, and to create the next generation of leading U.S. companies,” Pritzker said. “Today and in the future, we must choose a path forward that charts this same course; that spurs lasting growth; and that keeps America open for innovation and open for business.”

Published on: Sep 18, 2015