My father, who was the first in our family to go to college, went to a land-grant university (Texas A&M). My sister went to a land-grant university (Clemson). I went to a land-grant university (Delaware). My wife went to a land-grant university (Purdue). My wife’s parents went to a land-grant university. (Wisconsin)
Abraham Lincoln set up the land-grant system through the Morrill Act of 1862. The federal government granted land to each state. The state used the land to set up a college to teach the practical arts, including agriculture, engineering, and military science.
The system worked. Land-grant colleges became social elevators that allowed lower-and middle-class kids to pursue higher education affordably. They also became engines of innovation, fueling an innovation boom that catapulted the United Sates to leadership positions in multiple industries in the late 19th century. We’re still riding the echo of that boom. I’ve often wondered about the return on the land-grant investment. The economic value created by the system must be orders of magnitude higher than the original cost.
The genius of the system is that it’s a platform, not a solution. For instance, Lincoln didn’t identify the inefficient harvesting of cotton as a national problem and jump to the conclusion that the government should invest in the cotton gin. Instead, he created a platform that allowed many people to pursue an education, investigate problems, and develop solutions on their own.
I bring this up because we seem confused about what role the government should play in stimulating innovation. I hear it in my IT/innovation classes all the time. Some students argue that government should get out of the way and let private industry solve every problem “efficiently”. Others argue that government should have a role but they have a difficult time describing it.
Ultimately, I think it’s fairly simple. The government should invest in platforms, not solutions. The land-grant system allowed millions of people — including me — to take something from America and then turn around and make something for America. (It’s not true that we’re either makers or takers. We’re usually both.)
In the recent past, the best example of platforms that stimulate innovation are probably the Internet and the human genome project. The massive brain mapping project — the Human Connectome — that President Obama recently announced could become the next great platform. On the other hand, the government investment in the solar panel manufacturer, Solyndra, was solution picking rather than platform building. It didn’t work so well.
So, I’m all for government investment in platforms that can stimulate innovation. By the way, I don’t claim that this is an original idea of mine. Steven Johnson makes much the same point in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. But I do think it’s an idea that needs to be popularized. That’s why I’m writing about it. I hope you will, too. In the meantime, I’ll give credit where it’s due by saying, “Thank you Mr. Lincoln for helping my family get an education.”