The Washington Post sounds a skeptical note amid the fanfare on the President's new electric car battery initiative:
Even advocates of federal support for the industry express grave doubts about expanding battery production capacity so far ahead of the demand, at the expense of other investments. Estimating that by 2015 the U.S. share of the world market will be no more than 10 percent, Anderman suggested that the United States delay efforts to broaden capacity and use the money for pilot projects and research instead.
The Federal role in dramatic innovation has sometimes been undeniable. Take the industrial production of penicillin during the Second World War, the twentieth century's most rapid technological miracle, despite all of the complications of later overuse of antibiotics. Penicillin had been discovered in England in 1928, yet over a decade of attempts to make medically useful quantities had failed. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service site tells the story of the British scientists Howard Florey and Norman Heatley's mission in summer 1941, bringing a sample of the mold to the U.S.:
Arriving in the United States, they were directed to USDA's Northern Laboratory, now a component of today's Agricultural Research Service, in Peoria, Illinois. The scientists in Peoria immediately rolled up their sleeves and started their cultures of penicillium. By November 26, 1941 (just days before Pearl Harbor), Andrew J. Moyer, the lab's expert on the nutrition of molds, had succeeded, with the assistance of Dr. Heatley, in increasing the previous yields of penicillin 10 times.The secret was corn steep liquor, familiar to agricultural researchers as a byproduct of the wet corn-milling process but obscure to medical researchers of the day. By including this nutrient-rich liquor in the culture medium, Dr. Moyer found a better growth medium than anything tried in England.
Dissatisfied still, he added milk sugar to the medium, and again the Penicillium mold doubled. Moyer also figured out how to use deep vats to grow the cultures. So encouraging were the results that four U.S. drug companies agreed to attempt large-scale production of penicillin. Nevertheless, by March 1942, they'd only produced enough of the drug to treat a single case.
Then the Peoria researchers made yet another breakthrough. Searching for a superior strain of Penicillium, they found it on a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria garbage can. When the new strain was made available to drug companies, production skyrocketed.
As this account suggests, the breakthrough occurred not because the researchers were government rather than private industry scientists, but because they worked in a different branch of biology and could see the problem in a new light. And their advances would have been insufficient to meet demand without the further ingenuity of the private chemical industry.