Author Estrin sees U.S. research as 'eroded,' 'unstable'

<b style="color:#900;">q&a</b> She is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the history of Silicon Valley. But in a new book, Judy Estrin warns of severe threats that threaten the nation's innovation ecosystem.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
7 min read

Unlike most first-time authors, Judy Estrin was guaranteed an audience from the moment she decided to put pen to paper.

With one of Silicon Valley's more renowned resumes, Estrin helped launch seven companies in a career spanning two and a half decades.

Judy Estrin

So it was that she decided to offer her own policy prescriptions on the myriad economic challenges facing the United States.

The problem with so many books of this genre is that most are boring beyond belief. It's hard to believe these same former executives forged successful careers by spouting the kind of mind-bending platitudes they routinely cram into their memoirs. Then again, that's in line with the happy talk routinely offered up in public as a substitute for serious policy debate.

Happily, Estrin resisted that temptation and instead turned out a hard-hitting cri de coeur that is reaching bookstores at a particularly opportune time. As the country gears up to choose its next president, the upcoming publication of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy should be required reading by Barack Obama and John McCain.

What Estrin offers is a marvelously frank polemic, distilling the experience and wisdom of a 25-year career to consider the profoundly troubling confluence that she says threatens the future of this country's innovation ecosystem, one Estrin describes as "even more eroded and unstable" than she ever imagined.

"I thought I was going to have trouble (selling the idea) in that people weren't going to believe we had a problem," says Estrin, who began writing the book in 2006. "At the time, people in general were feeling pretty good from an economic prospective."

Two years later, the chickens have come home to roost.

"The severity of our problems has really become more apparent to the everyday person or whether it is the price of oil, whether it is the prime mortgage problem," she says.

Estrin was lucky with her timing. But several of the problems she writes about have been around for years. To wit:

• Our national research community is suffering from neglect. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the United States 22nd in the percentage of GDP that nations spend on nondefense research.

• Estrin laments the focus on short-term financial transactions at the expense of building for the future. A "culture of instant gratification" has set in, she says, where "anything that is not seen as being directly connected to short-term gain is viewed as highly discretionary at best, if not an outright waste."

•  In post-September 11 America, Estrin says the response to complicated, global questions needs to be better aligned with realities on the ground. "When fear becomes the driving force in a society, people stop asking questions, instead of looking to the world around them for insight and collaborative potential."

•  Science has become too vulnerable to nonscientific objections. She notes instances where religious ideology has impacted decisions whether or not to fund or restrict scientific inquiry or school curricula.

The following are excerpts from an extended conversation I recently had with Estrin.

What drove you to write the book?
Estrin: I spent about a year presenting (this idea) in different environments and as I presented to different people it became clear to me that there was some concern about innovation, but not enough. A lot of people think that innovation is a sound bite, but there were a lot of people in the business world who were struggling with what really makes for innovative cultures. More than that, I began to realize that there were broader issues in the country in terms of the culture and the environment that had made my career possible. And the more I interviewed people, the more concerned I became and the more passionate I became about the topic.

You raise several troubling questions about the state of what you describe as the innovation ecosystem. When you finished the book were you more pessimistic than when you began it?
Estrin: When I began the book I was very focused on the problems in Silicon Valley and the problems in business of a short-term perspective on Wall Street. By the time I finished the book, I actually had become more alarmed about the breadth of the problems.

You write that the U.S.' innovation ecosystem is "even more eroded and unstable than you ever imagined." Not exactly an optimistic, "morning in America" message, is it?
Estrin: I'm not an alarmist by personality. I have to be hopeful because we have no choice. We really have to address these issues or else we're just going to keep going down.

When I was interviewing people, some of the people I interviewed would say to me, "You know, give it up. America has just lost it. It is no longer a superpower, it is in decline and there's nothing you can do about it." Then I would talk to other people, who would say, "This is just all about market cycles and the market will take care of itself. So, go write a business book on innovation, but from a country perspective, there's nothing the government could do." It was almost like they wanted to say, just recognize time constraints and the market will take care of itself.

I don't believe the market can take care of itself this time because one of the problems is that the market has become very, very short-term focused...I'm not one of those people that says the government can solve all our problems, but I believe that where we are right now actually is somewhere in between those two perspectives. We need leadership from the top to provide the inspiration and the spark. There are some places where we need some policy changes and some strategically placed funding to be able to get the incentives aligned to solve some of these problems. Then we need business and educational and nonprofit leaders to work with government to figure out what we're going to do to.

Is your answer, then, an electoral change with different people in charge?
Estrin: There's no question we need different people in charge. There's no question we need new leadership for the country.

You note that eight of China's nine top leaders are engineers, while the ninth is a geologist. Do you think China is going to be out-innovating the U.S. in 20 years?
Estrin: If we do nothing, there's no question about it. But I believe that the level of freedom and individuality that we have historically had in our culture provides the framework for that type of (disruptive) innovation more than you'll find in a more structured society. If you look at China, Japan, or at some other nations, they tend to be more hierarchical and more structured and so that leads them to innovate in the areas where you need to apply scale. I think that if we can get back our culture of openness and freedom and a culture of valuing science and paying respect to it, then no one can beat us in that area.

At the Intel Developer Forum, (former CEO) Craig Barrett, complained that the U.S. isn't doing enough to spur R&D compared with the rest of the world. Apropos, you write in your book that science is becoming too vulnerable to nonscientific objection in this country.
Estrin: I'm very, very, very concerned about that. When you look at making changes in our education system, you want to make decisions based on evidence and data. You don't want to make decisions based on who is in office or what geography you're trying to play up to. You make those decisions based on scientific data and scientific facts. You need people who can look at that and then make the decisions based on that input. Unfortunately, in the last decade, the scientific community has been treated like a special interest group, as opposed to being used as a resource.

Is it a question of getting more people with scientific backgrounds into elected office?
Estrin: It isn't so much even that Washington needs to be populated by people who are scientists, but we need people in Washington--whether it is Congress or the president or the people who run the agencies--who have an appreciation for science and understand the role that science plays in solving problems.

Listening to you I'm wondering whether you have any aspirations to go into political life?
Estrin: Why do you ask?

Well, when you have someone making this kind of social and economic critique who comes from the business community, you can't accuse them of being a soft-headed bureaucrat who believes in government handouts.
Estrin: Right.

So, you're someone who has been a serial entrepreneur with an established CV in Silicon Valley. You have the bonafides.
Estrin: I didn't write this to put forth a political opinion, but I did come out of writing it with a stronger opinion about the country and government than I ever had before. You asked whether I aspire to run for anything--the answer is no because I just don't think that's me. I would much rather talk about these issues and evangelize and help whoever is in power do the right things than run for office.