Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

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.