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How to Make America More Innovative

Give scientists more incentives to innovate.

Is America no longer the land of innovation? Everyone from tech billionaires to Times columnists is sounding the alarm, and everyone has his own diagnosis of the problem: innovators kept out of the country by H1-B visa quotas and bureaucracy. Poor science education in public schools. Even U.S.-style health care has been implicated. Would-be entrepreneurs, the thinking goes, can't act on their breakthrough ideas because they feel tethered to middle-management jobs and the health benefits that come with them.

In one way or another, these diagnoses all focus on the inspired innovator as the source of new ideas. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given the stories of innovation that seed our imagination—Newton discovering gravity when an apple bonked him on the head, Archimedes having his eureka moment while soaking in the tub. If the problem is indeed a shortage of innovators, then policy prescriptions that expand the genius pipeline through imports or home-grown development make a lot of sense. But as the saying goes, genius is 99 percent perspiration—Newton and Archimedes also logged countless days and nights producing the theories and inventions that followed from their moments of inspiration.

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Author: Ray Fisman