future of our children depends on what we do over the next decade. I congratulate you on the progress you’ve made so far.”
Mr. DeVol affirmed the danger of excessive complacency in the U.S. “One thing I find troubling when I talk to legislators and their staffs is the idea that we have a divine right to lead in innovation. That biomedical, pharmaceutical, biotech, and other firms are here because they deserve to be. That we don’t have to worry about whether they are innovative or what other countries are doing.” He asked, “How do we cut through the idea that we’ve always been number one, and therefore we always will be?”
Illustrating the point, Anna Barker, a former deputy director for strategic scientific initiatives at the National Cancer Institute, said that leadership in life sciences is now moving offshore. Responding to the enormous looming problem of lung cancer in China, a nation of some 300 million cigarette smokers, Chinese officials told her on an earlier visit to Beijing that they were planning a new genomic center to address this problem. When she went back a year later, she expected to see no more than plans for the center. Instead she found a completed institution with 2,400 people, including 1,000 in bioinformatics. “This is a field where we are faltering,” she said. “We haven’t trained our kids well in computational biology or computation in general. So on every front China is driving innovation in education, in the new areas of science, like nanotechnology. In the next 10 years we’re either going to have to partner with China to get some of that information back, and gain from what we have invested, or we’re going to fall very far behind. We still have a choice, but time is running out.”
Bob Schmidt, of Cleveland Medical Devices, said that while universities receive far more funding than the SBIR program, small firms produce far more patents, and asked whether the SBIR should not logically receive more money. Dr. Wessner agreed that small businesses are effective in developing patents and, above all, products, but that the “universities are where many of the ideas come from.” Furthermore, the distinction between universities and small business may be blurred when “a researcher has an idea in the lab, and then goes across the street to become a small business.” He suggested that it was appropriate to see both activities as part of the same system. He said that in a recent study of the SBIR program, the National Academies had found additional resources in the SBIR program would be effectively used, but also noted the need for expanded support for basic research, applied research, and especially translational research to move innovations toward the marketplace.5
5National Research Council, An Assessment of the SBIR Program, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008.