NSF Innovation Survey

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has just released its first ever Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS).  Developed jointly with the U.S. Census Bureau, it reveals that companies located in the U.S. spent $330 billion on R&D in 2008, with $234 billion of that used for research in facilities located in the U.S.

NSF’s previous R&D instrument, carried out every year since 1953, was called the Survey of Industrial Research and Development. But research is conducted differently today than it was 50 years ago, and back in 2004 the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics recommended that NSF develop an updated version. New features surveyed include:

  • worldwide R&D expenses
  • R&D employee headcount by occupation category
  • R&D expenses by detailed business segments
  • share of R&D devoted to new business areas and new science or technology activities

Companies with R&D reported a high ratio of domestic U.S. sales to worldwide sales: well over 60 percent.

The data were gathered from a representative sample of 40,000 U.S. businesses (including U.S. owned and also U.S. affiliates of companies owned outside the U.S.).

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

My blog post is the title of a new book by Matt Ridley. His book has been getting a lot of attention, with high-profile reviews and with a cover article, by him, in the Wall Street Journal’s “Weekend Journal” on Saturday/Sunday May 22-23, 2010, titled “Humans: Why They Triumphed.”

The artwork accompanying the article shows a large light bulb, composed of hundreds of smaller light bulbs, reinforcing Ridley’s key message: innovation and human advancement comes from lots of small ideas, coming together. This is a rather old idea in 2010, with books on this topic extending back at least to Jim Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds and with a more recent flurry of books on how the Internet catalyzes “collective intelligence,” such as Linked (Barabasi), Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Tapscott and Williams), The Starfish and the Spider (Brafman and Beckstrom), and my own book Group Genius. In Group Genius, my central message is that all innovation emerges from a long series of “small sparks” and that the belief in a blinding “flash of genius” is largely a myth.

So, what’s new with Ridley’s book that warrants so much media attention? My copy is still on order, but based on the extensive reviews I’ve read, and on his own WSJ piece, the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

Ridley’s catchphrase seems to be “ideas having sex,” based on a good analogy with how the evolution of sex resulted in much more adaptive species, because it allowed the exchange of genetic material. But again, that’s not really a new idea; the analogy of human innovation with evolution goes back at least to a famous 1960 article by Donald Campbell.

So in the absence of apparently new discoveries or material, I’m left to conclude that the reason Ridley’s book is getting so much attention must be because it’s very well written, entertaining to read, and does a compelling job of bringing together existing ideas in a new package. And of course, I like the fact that his message is completely consistent with my own research! The book is certainly on my reading list.

Ask an Unbusy Person

This story was just published in the Human Resources Report:

Need Something Created? Ask an Unbusy Person to Do It

by Cathleen O’Connor Schoultz

It turns out that idle hands may not be the devil’s workshop
after all, as having some unscheduled time can allow
employees to become more creative, according to an associate
professor of education and psychology at Washington
University in St. Louis.

“Idle time allows people to think of their problems in new
ways,” said R. Keith Sawyer, the author of Explaining
Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation
, an overview of
the history of creativity and of research into traits that
highly creative people share.

Sawyer said that creative people tend to build some
unstructured time into their workdays. When Sawyer talks to
corporations about creativity, he said, he always emphasizes
the importance of making employees take all of their
vacation time.

Sawyer told BNA April 27 his research shows that new
perspectives and meeting diverse people also lead to more
creativity.

Reached on sabbatical in Savannah, Ga., Sawyer said that he
had downtime on his mind because several of his European
colleagues were stuck during the recent airport closings
caused by dark clouds of volcanic ash from Iceland.

Vol. 28, No. 17, 5-3-2010, p. 456