Google: Lessons for America’s Innovation Policy




The press has gone gaga over Google – the world’s most popular Internet search engine. With its upcoming IPO, every aspect of the company’s business strategy and quirky culture has been scrutinized. One issue that has received almost no attention, however, is the important role that federal research policy has played in creating Google and other Internet companies. Past federal investments have allowed the United States to establish a commanding lead in the Internet and other advanced technologies. Unfortunately, America’s innovation policy is headed in the wrong direction. As we enter the 21st century, our current policies are putting America’s status as a technological superpower at risk.

In just a few short years, Google has emerged as a genuine business, technological, and cultural phenomena. Every day, Internet users from around the world use Google at least 200 million times to search 6 billion Web pages, images and discussion-group postings in 97 different languages. Furthermore, Google has created a global network of more than 100,000 computers, which allows it to rapidly deploy new Internet services. One recent example is Gmail, a free webmail service that allows users to store and search a gigabyte of e-mail, the equivalent of 500,000 pages of text. To generate a stream of new ideas, Google employees are encouraged to devote 20 percent of their time on risky projects that they are personally interested in, but are not tied to their day job.

What is not widely known is the contribution that federal research funding played in creating Google. Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergei Brin – two computer science graduate students at Stanford University. Stanford was one of a number of universities that received funding under the "Digital Libraries Initiative" – supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (DARPA is the agency that funded the ARPANET in the late 1960’s, the computer network that led to today’s Internet). The goal of the initiative, launched in 1994, was to "dramatically advance the means to collect, store, and organize information in digital forms, and make it available for searching, retrieval, and processing via communication networks – all in user-friendly ways." Larry Page was funded under the DLI as a graduate student researcher, and Sergei Brin was supported with an NSF graduate student fellowship. Page and other Stanford researchers created an algorithm called PageRank. It ranks the importance of each Web page based on the number and importance of other Web pages that link to it. This technological advance enabled Page and Brin to develop a search engine that found useful and relevant information, which was critical to Google’s popularity. Google was also prototyped on equipment paid for by the federal government’s Digital Library Initiative.

Google is not the only search engine with roots in university research. Inktomi was founded in 1996 by University of California-Berkeley computer science professor Eric Brewer and his graduate student Paul Gauthier. Inktomi’s technology was based on a DARPA-funded project called Network of Workstations, which allowed researchers to create low-cost supercomputers by networking together inexpensive PCs. Inktomi has recently been acquired by Yahoo, and Microsoft is licensing Inktomi’s technology for its search engine.

This kind of innovation is critical to economic growth and job creation. Google, for example, has gone from eight employees in the beginning of 1999 to almost 2,000 today. Unfortunately, the federal government isn’t making the kinds of investments today that will ensure that the United States maintains its leadership in the industries of the future. We can no longer take America’s scientific and technological pre-eminence for granted:

  • According to the National Science Board, the United States ranks 17th among nations surveyed in the share of 18 to 24-year-olds who earn natural science and engineering degrees. In 1975, it was third. This is a problem for companies like Google – which wants to hire engineers with a background in artificial intelligence, data compression and information retrieval.
  • We are relying on foreign students to meet the demand for scientists and engineers. For example, 38 percent of the nation’s scientists and engineers with doctorates are now foreign born. At the same time, however, post 9/11 visa restrictions are making it less likely that foreign students will come to the United States. Research universities have reported significant drops in applications for graduate programs.
  • The U.S. share of publications in the top scientific journals is declining. In one top series of physics journals, the U.S. share has declined from 61 percent in 1983 to 29 percent in 2003.
  • The Bush administration’s policies will make this problem worse. Under the administration’s most recent budget proposal, science funding in 21 out of 24 agencies would be cut over the next five years. Key science agencies that would see their budgets decline include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Our failure to invest in research and a high-tech workforce is a big mistake. If we want to see more Googles, faster growth, and more job creation, we should significantly increase our funding for science and education. U.S. global leadership in science and technology is at stake.




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