Drawn from the private sector, think tanks, universities, local governments, and Congress, 22 men and women who have built their careers around the importance of American innovation discussed the country's culture of innovation and its future Thursday morning at the Newseum.

Listen to the session here:


Participants Included:

Robert D. Atkinson, Founder and President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
Richard Baraniuk, Victor E. Cameron, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Rice University
Mary Sue Coleman, President, University of Michigan
Beth Comstock, Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer, GE
Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles Ducommon Professor of Education, Co-Director School Redesign Network, Stanford University
Bart Gordon, Chairman, Committee on Science and Technology, United States House of Representatives
Krisztina "Z" Holly, Vice Provost for Innovation, University of Southern California
James Johnson, Vice Chairman, Perseus LLC
Amy Klobuchar, Senator for Minnesota, United States Senate
Elan Lee, Founder, Fourth Wall Studios
Max McGee, President, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Mark Muro, Fellow and Policy Director, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution
Steven Pearlstein, Business Columnist, The Washington Post
Bud Peterson, President, Georgia Institute of Technology
Michelle Rhee, Chancellor, DC Public Schools
Ben Sawyer, President, Digitalmill
Darrell West, Founding Director, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution

The Conversation:

While innovation  is critical in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, our experts stressed that it should be understood as more than simply the creation of new technologies.  Throughout the discussion, participants reminded each other that innovation also encompasses the means by which technologies, processes, and ideas are incorporated into fields of work and change them at scales both small and large.

Ultimately, the attendees agreed that education and governmental policy are the strongest drivers behind innovation, and that together they set the tone for how the American public regards fields with the most potential for innovation.

Our experts were critical of the performance of American primary and secondary school students relative to that of students in other countries, but thought the problem lay not so much in the quality of school instruction as in its emphases.  They called for an educational curriculum and culture from the youngest grades on up that would encourage students to build their own creations and to develop the tools to figure out how and why what they're learning works, from running their own scientific investigations to creating new games in P.E. and teaching them to their classmates.

One participant's call for allowing more foreign students who study STEM fields at U.S. universities to stay in the country on H-1B visas was met with exclamations of "yes!" and nods of agreement from around the entire table.

Participants called on the government to highlight innovation as a national priority and to coordinate funding distribution across federal agencies. They also stressed the need to speed up approvals for patents, medical devices, and drugs; to have a clear green energy policy; and to encourage innovation as part of education.  These, argued members from both the private and the public sector, were the sort of policy changes that would allow them to create more and translate American and immigrant ingenuity into more American jobs.

Five Big Ideas from our Experts in Technology and Innovation:

1. The importance of immigration reform: foreign students who study STEM fields should be able to get work visas much more easily. Instead there are far too few H-1B visas for foreign students who would like to work in the U.S. after graduation, even for those who want to turn ideas into new changes and new jobs. A change in this policy would increase U.S. competitiveness and keep us from "training the competition."

2. Educational reform: does it need to be more systematic?  Who needs to drive it?  Parents, guidance counselors, local and state officials, and the federal government all came up as classes of people who can and should work for change.

3. The distinction between technology (inventions) and innovation: innovation includes application and changing a field and the culture as well as the specific breakthrough.  Researchers need to consider how to apply and scale technologies as well as innovations; innovations with broad possibility that are restricted to a few applications aren't reaching their full potential.

4. Innovation needs both very broad support (as in encouraging kids from a young age to think about creating and designing; removing obstacles from going into STEM fields) and very narrow support (as in federal dollars and public-private partnerships targeting very specific areas such as alternative energy technologies, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics).
  
5. The U.S. has two main advantages over the rest of the world when it comes to innovation: a good university system and a diverse population.