Where are the “big problem” jobs?

Several authors, scientists and entrepreneurs have lamented our poor ability to innovate. It seems that industry is recruiting few people to work on hard problems, except maybe when they are supported by the government:

Private businesses seem remarkably uninterested in tackling serious problems such as energy despite soaring prices and evident problems. In the rare cases where someone may be attempting to solve these problems, one often finds the heavy hand of government funding, for better or worse.

Many years ago, I pursued a Ph.D., not to become a professor or even a government researcher, but rather to pursue industrial R&D. I had vague dreams about working in some corporate research laboratory. I imagined I would be working on cool new technology to solve important problems. I never even questioned that such job existed… until I went looking for them!

I was disappointed. Instead, I ended up starting my own business. Amazingly, it worked! We got several contracts to do leading-edge work that still determines my research agenda to this day. I acquired a taste for problems that matter. However, much of our funding (maybe 40%) came indirectly from the government.

“Where are the big problem jobs?” I would say that they are either supported by the government or, better yet, driven by entrepreneurship.1

The problem with government R&D is that it has a bad track record at helping the economy, outside of a few areas such as agriculture. Baumol made a similar point in the Free-Market Innovation Machine: Imperial China, the Roman Empire and even the USSR had great scholars and no shortage of technological innovation. However, they lacked the means to reap the benefits of this research. Government R&D often comes about as a mix of bureaucratic campuses, bureaucratic government laboratories and bureaucratic corporations. That’s only exciting if you have a perverse sense of humor.

Want to kill a good idea? Assign it to a committee.

What Imperial China, the Roman Empire and the USSR lacked, was entrepreneurship. I conjecture that the number of science graduates who become entrepreneurs is a better predictor of economic progress than the number of new Ph.D.s. And if you are a young woman or man who wants to work on big problems, you would be better off preparing yourself for some form of entrepreneurship… if you want your work to matter.

Too many scientists think that science is created in a laboratory and then turned into a product by puny engineers. The reverse process is at least as likely to happen. It is by trying to solve important problems that significant science comes about.

Yet we are not used to think of scientists as entrepreneurs. We are not used of thinking of science as a process where you get money, hire people and make a profit. In some ways, the idea of patenting a new refrigerator seems contrary to science. Yet Einstein held such a patent that he sold for profit.

Our idea of the scientist has too much to do with the Mandarins of Imperial China and not enough to do with Sergey Brin.

1– There are corporate exceptions. For example, Google seems to be working on a few big problems, such as the self-driving car and Google Glass.

8 thoughts on “Where are the “big problem” jobs?”

  1. Right. But back to your original question. What jobs are there in solving big-problems?

    Why does private enterprise keep failing to deliver sustainable energy, agriculture or social justice?

    For all its faults, government is the only place that DOES do large scale investment in research that isn’t immediately profitable. You can’t get industrial research jobs in lots of areas of physics or biology. Let alone social science, history or philosophy.

    Right now, private space exploration is extremely trendy, but I’m willing to bet you that it won’t … ahem … take-off. I suggest that private space exploration is more a function of the fact that the internet has created a few extremely wealthy and geeky philanthropists willing to spend their money, than that private enterprise can, in general, make a profit from space research.

    Government does it badly. Private enterprise doesn’t do it at all. What do you suggest next?

  2. I agree that much of world-shaping research is going to fall on scientists-turned-entrepreneurs. Besides Google, a great example that we’ve already been seeing are the MOOCs that have been started by the Stanford faculty. But producing scientist-entrepreneurs is difficult for two important reasons: 1) Pursuing science and pursuing commercial products are conflicting goals. One is pursued for the benefits of knowledge alone and the other is for monetary gain. Mixing the two can lead to confusing interests. 2) Entreprenurship involves a lot of risk: everything from the financial aspects to the amount of time and effort put into building actual products from research results. I doubt very few young scientists would initially go this route, unless they are already tenured faculty, with little to lose.

    I think alot of this was discussed in a post by Matt Welsh on his blog:
    http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2012/06/startup-university.html

  3. Silicon Valley was founded with government investment to create radar tech for the cold war. I really don’t see investment as an issue. It’s a problem when it’s useless investment or
    bad oversight.

    The industrial revolution kicked off in the uk because of the environment (wanting to drain ever deeper mines) and ip law were you could use a patent to make money from your invention. For a long time the steam engines ran ahead of the basic science.

    Did the roman empire really invent all that much? It wasn’t in it’s cultural DNA, it was the Greek city states where interesting things happened.

    China invented a massive amount of fundemental ideas and machines. It just failed to pass that tipping point of feedback where each invention allows and enourages additional refinement.

    There’s also IBM with Watson and some brain emulation projects. Lockheed skunkworks and it’s reactor. Xerox had their famous research center but it was Jobs and Gates who ended up commericializing the ideas. Bell labs gave birth to Shannon’s communication paper

    The 3d printing stuff is also exciting and coming from quite a historical traditional base of tinkerers, reminscent of the home computer boom

  4. I’m not sure which Big Problem Google Glass is trying to solve, unless it is coming up with a cheap way for the government to spy on everyone without having to use a massive police force.

  5. Daniel, you’re kidding, right? Virtually every fundamental advance in computing has been the result of government funded research. Such funding has sometimes preceded commercialization by a decade or more. Think how long people were working on statistical pattern recognition/learning before it was applied to commercial products in machine translation or data mining, just to pick one example. Every major computer technology can similarly be traced back to government funded research.

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