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Through grants, contracts, and loans, the federal government invests over $140 billion annually in research and development. Most economists agree that public support for research and development is essential given that the private sector—unable to internalize the social benefits—will underinvest in the creation of knowledge that may lead to innovation. Critics have questioned the adequacy of the return on this public investment, arguing that government investment is ineffective, inefficient, and may simply crowd out private investment. Overlaying these issues are questions about the broader impacts of these federal investments on inequality—that is, the distribution of gains from the fruits of innovation.

On December 15, 2016, the Innovation Policy Forum of the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy held a workshop designed to gather leading researchers to explore the returns to federal investments in the innovation system, which include economic growth, job creation, as well as improved health and quality of life. The workshop was structured into four panels investigating social returns to: (1) federal investments in basic research; (2) federal support to private-sector innovation (which include research and expenditure (R&E) tax credits, small business support, prizes, and the patent system, among other policies); (3) public investments in human capital and supporting infrastructure such as digital infrastructure; and (4) the relationship between innovation, inequality, and social mobility. This publication briefly summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.

Suggested Citation

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Returns to Federal Investments in the Innovation System: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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