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The State of the Union: Innovation's Star Turn

Too often in recent American history the “innovation” agenda has felt like a specialized, glossy cant for good times—for Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Boston technologists, and Wired readers. Last night, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama changed that. Instead of settling for austerity-talk or “small ball,” Obama placed innovation at the center of his narrative, and promoted technology innovation (especially clean energy innovation) as the central imperative of national economic renewal.. But while he has emphasized the importance of invention in the past, he has never done it as explicitly and forcefully as he did last night before a prime time national TV audience in a year of tepid recovery, 9 percent unemployment, and fears of lost national mojo.

This was different from the past, in which presidents have tended to either ignore innovation or tick it off as one of many programmatic topics. Even for Obama last night’s rhetoric was new. To be sure, the president has frequently referenced technological innovation in his travels to Nevada solar arrays and Rust Belt community colleges

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. That's how we'll win the future,” Obama declared, and then he singled out both particular technologies (“We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology,” he said) and a distinctly American way of pursuing “breakthroughs.” “We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time,” the president declared, which was a clear reference to the pathbreaking ARPA-E program on “disruptive” energy breakthroughs and the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Hubs, informed in part by the energy discovery-innovation institutes (e-DIIs) concept developed by the Metro Program.

What was powerful here, meanwhile, was not just the shout-outs, but the clarity and forcefulness of the case made for public investments in innovation, not as a peripheral boutique matter but as a central factor in the nation’s future well-being.  “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need," Obama said. "That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs--from manufacturing to retail--that have come from those breakthroughs.”

This, finally, is an argument for a targeted and potentially transformative response to economic drift and global challenge. Soon will begin the hard stuff of legislating and appropriating, but for now America’s entrepreneurs, scientists, regional economic leaders, and especially its workers should derive a measure of hope and a sense that, finally, the game is on.