The mother of invention

March 8, 2007
It's been said that inventiveness is the source of American wealth.

Leland Teschler,

So it is interesting that both the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the National Science Foundation recently studied ingenuity in the U.S. and concluded we need more of it.

Both institutions would like to figure out how to grow the ranks of bona fide inventors. Their recommendations for doing so run heavily toward better training at the elementary and secondary-school level, more scholarships for science and math majors, and generous grants for Ph.D.s pursuing research.

All these ideas are good, but I'm not sure they will bring an uptick of innovation. It may be naive to think innovators can be mass produced. A study by the Lemelson-M.I.T. Program and the NSF reached a similar conclusion: In so many words, educators know how to make people into subject-matter experts, but they don't yet know how to create innovators. The answer isn't in just minting additional Ph.D.s.

A proclivity to be a technical trailblazer is probably analogous to IQ: Some individuals are just born with more of it than others. So efforts to make people with a low-innovation quotient into inventors are likely to fail.

What's more likely to succeed is creating incentives for born innovators to exercise their talent. This is a point worth pondering as you peruse our annual future-technology issue. Among the innovations discussed are some originating not out of academic exercises, but from entrepreneurs pursuing cash prizes for solving specific problems.

History shows that high-profile prizes can encourage innovative ideas. Perhaps the most notable recent example was Mojave Aerospace Ventures' winning of the $10 million X Prize for putting a private pilot into space. Then there's the Darpa $2 million Grand Challenge race for autonomous vehicles. It proved to be so successful that the organization is doing it again this year and making the problem more difficult. Looking further back, it is sometimes forgotten that Lindbergh's motivation for flying from New York to Paris was the $25,000 Orteig Prize. And mariners in the 1700s could figure out their exact position at sea thanks to inventor John Harrison who was obsessed with winning the £20,000 Longitude Prize.

Some of the most noteworthy ways of encouraging innovation today can be found on the Web. The drug company Eli Lilly created innocentive.comso companies could post research dilemmas that had defied solution and give anyone who cracked them a cash reward. Procter & Gamble, which itself employs about 9,500 R&D workers and about 1,200 Ph.D.s., posted one of the first problems. It was solved by a North Carolina attorney who moonlights in chemistry. So much for the idea that innovation requires a professional scientist.

The English essayist Samuel Johnson once remarked that the sight of the gallows wonderfully concentrates the mind. Among innovators, the same might be said for the prospect of earning a sizable cash prize.

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