Determined to Reinspire a Culture of Innovation
WASHINGTON — Like everyone else, William A. Wulf understands the importance of innovation in the American economy, and how innovation depends on an educated workforce and abundant spending on research.
But learning and investment are not enough, Dr. Wulf says. An innovation economy depends on intellectual property law, tax codes, patent procedures, export controls, immigration regulations and factors making up what he calls “the ecology of innovation.” Unfortunately, he argues, in the United States too many of these components are unworkable, irrelevant, inadequate, outdated or “fundamentally broken.”
He would know. For 11 years, Dr. Wulf, a researcher and entrepreneur of computer science, was president of the National Academy of Engineering, the engineering arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the nation’s pre-eminent organization of innovators. In that time, it seems, his reputation among his fellow engineers has only grown — they call him variously a good guy, a great guy, a brilliant guy and even “the best guy in the world.”
As Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, put it, “he has been a huge statesman for the engineering enterprise.” In the process, he said, Dr. Wulf greatly increased the prominence of the engineering academy, chartered by Congress to offer scientific and technical advice to the government.
He did this in part, colleagues say, by starting programs to encourage students to enter engineering, and establishing prizes to reward high engineering achievement. More than that, people like Dr. Lazowska say, he encouraged the academy to issue hard-hitting reports that sometimes challenged government positions on code-breaking, the importance of classifying research, and other security issues.
As he left office last month, Dr. Wulf began a project he said he hoped others would join him in — repairing the nonfunctioning elements of America’s ecology of innovation and building mechanisms to foster creative thinking and invention as science and technology advance.
“Even if we fixed every one of the components of this innovation ecology to be just right for today and tomorrow, they probably would not be a week hence,” he said in an interview before he left office. “At least every once in a while we should stand back and say what was the intent of intellectual property protection, what was the intent of the export control regime, what was the intent of antitrust? And in the light of today’s technology, what’s the best way to achieve that?”
He has been asking these questions a lot lately: they were his subject at a recent forum held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in a guest editorial in the journal Science.
Consider antitrust laws, he suggested at the forum. They were developed in the late 19th century, “in the context of the economic theories of the time.” But today, many of those assumptions are irrelevant. When it comes to word processing software, for example, he said, the wide use of a particular product — Microsoft Word, say — may pay more dividends than encouraging the production of myriad competing programs. Microsoft Word software may not be the best or the cheapest but he uses it anyway, “because there is a really good chance that if I create a doc file and send it to anybody, they’ll be able to open it up and edit it and send it back to me. It is the ubiquity of Word that makes it valuable.”
This is not to say that we should embrace inferior products, he said, but regulators should recognize that disregarding the value of ubiquity can work against innovation.
Or take what he called “the idiocy” of enacting short-term tax credits for research and development. “R and D takes many years,” he said. “If companies invested this year to take advantage of the R and D credit and then the next year it went away, they would have to stop the research and they would have wasted money.”
He says this is why corporate leaders tell him “with near unanimity” that tax credits have little influence on their decisions.
Then there is the drug approval process at the Food and Drug Administration. It typically relies on clinical trials involving hundreds or thousands of patients, in which new drugs are compared with existing ones. If the promise that medicines will be devised to suit a particular patient’s particular ailment is fulfilled, he said, that kind of testing will be impossible — and irrelevant.
For the third year in a row, Congress is confronting patent laws, which Dr. Wulf describes as relics of the days when patents were awarded for things inventors could construct as scale models and submit to patent examiners. “It would be surprising if that system, designed for that purpose, was ideally suited to software or snippings of DNA or business practices,” Dr. Wulf told the A.A.A.S. forum. He added that in an era when technologies may become obsolete well before their patents expire, “the current patent system is at best irrelevant and in some cases counterproductive.”
The United States has already ceded its dominance of mass production manufacturing to low-wage countries, and unless something is done to improve the ecology of innovation, Dr. Wulf said, the nation will lose its chance for a comeback in what he calls the coming age of mass customization. “This is a knowledge-intensive kind of manufacturing,” he said. “It will not be done by low-wage labor.” But, he went on: “What worries me is we’re not thinking of what the ecology is that would capture that kind of manufacturing. We have the ability to become the greatest manufacturing country in the world, but we are not doing anything about it.”
Dr. Wulf says he regrets this not just because of its implications for the nation’s economic future, but also because it means fewer people will experience what he calls the “thrill” of innovating, of inventing something elegant and useful, something he first experienced as an undergraduate.
Dr. Wulf, 67, who was born in Chicago and who comes from a family of engineers, said his “eureka moment” occurred when he was a physics major at the University of Illinois and had a summer job at a Chicago engineering firm. One of his group’s projects was a machine that read telephone numbers from holes punched in plastic cards. Now and then cards would jam and the machine would break, much to the irritation of the people who used it.
So he watched the machine at work. “I can remember looking up and thinking, ‘I know what it is,’ ” he recalled in an interview. “I mocked up the solution with cardboard and drafting paper. It was inexpensive, it was easy to modify and it was foolproof.”
His innovation won praise from colleagues and a bonus in his check. But the real reward, he said, “was that moment of creation, that moment of seeing the problem and seeing a solution.” He said, “once you have had the creative thrill of designing something that solves a real human problem and that people use, it’s addictive.”
Before long, he had a master’s in electrical engineering from Illinois, a doctorate in the then-new field of computer science from the University of Virginia and a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon University. There, he began research eventually spun off as Tartan Laboratories, which makes devices that translate C, Pascal, Fortran or other programming languages into “machine language,” instructions a machine can execute.
“As a researcher, he is utterly first-rate,” Dr. Lazowska said.
After Tartan was sold to Texas Instruments in 1995, Dr. Wulf worked for two years as assistant director of the National Science Foundation, where he led its efforts in computer science and information engineering, and then took a teaching job at the University of Virginia. All the while, he was working more or less in parallel with his wife, Anita Jones, who is also a computer scientist, and also a member of the Academy of Engineering. The couple, who celebrated their 30th anniversary last month, have two daughters and four grandsons.
They were on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon together, and when they started Tartan he was chief executive and she was vice president for engineering. He worked at the National Science Foundation, and she was director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon (unfortunately not always at the same time). And when he moved to the University of Virginia, she was his department head. He will work for her again when he returns to the university in the fall.
His wife’s accomplishments underline the importance of bringing more women into engineering, Dr. Wulf said, adding that the number of women in the Academy quadrupled during his tenure as president. But he added, “the bad news is we have gone from 1 percent to 4 percent.”
His argument for diversity is not based on fairness, but rather on the value of bringing diverse social and cultural perspectives to the design of products and procedures that will be used by diverse people around the world.
There are elements of culture that form an important part of the ecology of innovation, and here, Dr. Wulf says, the United States has advantages and disadvantages.
One big advantage is that innovating something and seeing it fail carries much less stigma here than it does in other countries. “In almost every other country in the world, certainly in the Far East, the social cost of failure is enormous,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, there is widespread ignorance of science and technology. “Here we are with 90 percent of the population incapable of intelligent conversation about some of the most important policy issues of the day,” he said.
Dr. Wulf said he was eager to appear before the A.A.A.S. and write his editorial in Science not because he knows how to fix the ecology of innovation but because “this is not something people have been talking about.” He said, “I want to get a lot of smart people thinking about it.”