Obama’s challenge: Thinking big

BERLIN — “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems” says the provocative headline in the current issue of MIT Technology Review. This package ought to go in President Obama’s reading pile as he ponders his January inaugural address and second-term agenda.

Jason Pontin, the editor-in-chief of the MIT review, introduces his theme by recalling the high age of space exploration — the incredible decade in which the United States, from a standing start, achieved President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

“The strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology,” writes Pontin. That sense of awe has diminished, if not disappeared. There hasn’t been a human being on the moon since 1972. And as Pontin writes, “big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.”

The point of Pontin’s exercise, as you might have guessed, is to say that these big problems are, in fact, solvable, if the United States and other advanced countries will widen their ambitions, their public research budgets and their willingness to take risks.

The MIT review gathers a series of manifestos for big-think ideas that are feasible, now. The list includes plans for: carbon capture to slow climate change; genomic medicine to target the array of cellular malfunctions that go under the heading of “cancer”; solar grids to bring electricity to the world’s poorest people; robotic manufacturing and online education to mass produce knowledge and good engineering techniques; a new assault on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; and, yes, a mission to Mars.

Why aren’t these big ideas funded today? Pontin identifies one important factor as the decline in spending for energy research and development, which has fallen from 10 percent of total R&D spending in 1979 to just 2 percent today.

A second, more interesting cause is what Pontin says is a tendency among venture capitalists and other investors to look for small tweaks rather than big, disruptive technology breakthroughs. He quotes Bruce Gibney, a venture capitalist at the San Francisco-based Founders Fund, who offers a harsh explanation: “In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future. … Venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems. … VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.”

Investors would respond that they’re still looking for the big ideas, so long as they are attached to a reasonable business model. (Indeed, the person who alerted me to the MIT discussion is Pradeep Ramamurthy, a former Obama administration official who now works for a private equity firm called Abraaj Capital.)

Here’s where Obama can make a difference in setting expectations about the future. As he reminded us so often during the presidential campaign, the past four years were largely about rebuilding the damage of the recession and managing orderly retreats from costly foreign wars. This was a period of low expectations, low returns on investment and low tolerance for risk. The president’s own cautious style was a mirror for that of Wall Street investors, who, whatever they might claim, were thinking even smaller than the president.

Can America think bigger during the next four years — not in the usual terms of expansive foreign policy, but in terms of rebuilding its economic and technological mastery? It’s likely that Obama will get a budget deal that builds a sound macro-economic foundation for growth, but how will he build on it?

Here’s where a new White House partnership with business can be crucial: It would signal to the country that the president and the leaders of the nation’s biggest finance, tech and manufacturing companies are all going in the same direction. By the end of Obama’s term, America will be nearing energy self-sufficiency, and will be a low-cost producer for products that use energy. It’s not crazy, given these fundamentals, to talk about an American revival.

But thinking big about the American economy will require stronger political vision. Except for occasional glimmers, Obama hasn’t shown the quality of sustained, strategic leadership that would make him a transformational president. His team won a political victory that was a piece of genius. Can the White House translate that momentum into a real agenda for governing and growth?

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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