“Necessity is the mother of invention,” is a nice old expression. Funny, I had always thought it was first spoken by Thomas Edison. No, apparently, it is centuries’ old, recorded in Britain some 500 years ago. But is it true?
Below is a graph from a recent article in the Helsinki Times, an English-language newspaper here in Finland. It relates the findings of a study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which assessed helpful and hurtful policies in 56 nations. I am dubious about anyone’s abilities to measure something as amorphous as innovation, but since there are so many serious problems to be tackled in the world it seems worth thinking about.
From the Helsinki Times, “Finland Ranks 1st in Net Impact on Global Innovation,”
So how did Finland get to the top right corner? It’s robust social welfare system, part of which is its education system. As I sit here in the University of Jyväskylä library (the quietest college library I’ve ever been in, by the way), the students around me appear focused and calm. It’s noon, so one by one they drift downstairs to one of the many cafeterias where, for about $3, they can enjoy a full, nutritious lunch–an entrée, salad, bread and a drink. (Geez, I’m hungry.) None of them pay tuition. They all have health care.
As for the US? 10th overall, because although it has created few roadblocks to innovation, the US offers too few policies which encourage it. An article in The Globalist reporting on the same survey, noted that “This is due to the U.S. government’s relative underinvestment in R&D as a share of the country’s GDP, weak innovation-incenting tax policies, as well as a middling performance in human capital.”
I took a peek at the report. It asserted that to get to #1 in innovation globally, the US “could take five steps to significantly increase its score on contributions: 1) reduce its effective corporate tax rate to 18.2 percent; 2) increase its R&D tax credit to 24 percent; 3) implement an innovation box [not as cool as it sounds: a tax credit on innovation-related income]; 4) increase government funding of R&D by $68 billion annually; and 5) increase its number of college science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates by 20 percent.”
I might be missing something, but this prescription reads to me like the authors would prefer the US would become more like China and less like Finland. Yes, Finland has a lower effective corporate tax rate than the US, but so does Turkey (identical to Finland at 18.6%), Chile, Thailand, and Ukraine.
Perhaps it is people and not corporations that innovate. And perhaps the talent to innovate is imbued in a nation’s citizens before they take up their R&D positions. Perhaps it is in part cultural? Given our lack of publicallly funded prenatal care, the 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, the cost of day care and preschool, and then the formulas by which we Americans fund our K-12 system, it seems to me that is not hard to see our problems with “human capital.”
Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) had an interesting response to the aphorism, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Whitehead was a logician, mathematician (he worked with Bertrand Russell) and, later in life, a philosopher. I am struck by something he wrote about what we might call innovation (the emphasis is mine):
“If, in the troubled times which may be before us, you wish appreciably to increase the chance of some savage upheaval, introduce widespread technical education and ignore the Benedictine ideal [of prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal]. Society will then get what it deserves. Again, inventive genius requires pleasurable mental activity as a condition for its vigorous exercise. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a silly proverb. ‘Necessity is the mother of futile dodges’ is much nearer to the truth. The basis of the growth of modern invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.”
College-bound American high school students today are well aware of the cost of college, the international competition at the top schools, and the sense of a diminishing safety net–let alone trillions of dollars of federal debt, a fractured Middle East, and rising oceans. They are told to lead, to innovate, to think outside the box. But if the reason to do so is because they fear an adulthood lived in a dead-end, pensionless job, it’s hard to hope for “pleasurable intellectual curiosity.”