The government should use R&D to solve our biggest societal challenges. Here’s how.
To address our country’s increasingly complex societal problems, the federal government must take bigger and bolder steps to identify, validate and scale solutions, particularly those that are research-based and high-risk, high-reward.
Yet all too often, policymakers and federal leaders frame these problems in a way that discourages creative problem-solving and innovative thinking. While government has embraced this type of thinking to address challenges in science and medicine—like finding a cure for cancer, for example—there has been less agreement on the need for experimentation and risk-taking on serious social issues like homelessness and economic inequality.
Current gaps in R&D
This gap exists partly because, in certain areas, R&D does not promise a sustainable return on investment. While certain areas like drug development exist in a robust market, others do not produce clear and well-defined products that hold value on the open market or do not attract late-stage investors to scale new solutions.
Perhaps more importantly, most efforts to tackle complex public good problems are rooted in traditional policy arenas and grant funding. Rarely does government apply R&D principles to invest in developing scalable and transformative new, improved and more affordable service models. Indeed, none of the major federal R&D agencies have specific goals to tackle societal problems and agencies that focus on those issues have little experience in creating successful R&D ecosystems.
Changing the R&D trend
Government could begin to change this trend in two ways. First, federal leaders could create a new R&D agency or subagency modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which manages research and development initiatives focused on national security. The recent R&D agencies proposed by the Biden administration—designed to address health and climate issues—are potentially good models.
Second, government could also create better innovation systems and interconnected relationships to enable entrepreneurs to easily pivot from one problem to another—a typical R&D strategy.
The DARPA Empowered Program Manager model
DARPA is widely hailed as a model for high-risk, high-reward R&D that has led to pioneering developments in GPS, the internet and many other areas. A key feature of DARPA’s approach is the program manager—a world-class expert on specific topics who is recruited by the agency, given four years of funding and empowered to solve a well-defined set of ambitious problems. A decade ago, one such program manager helped convince Moderna to pursue developing vaccines using messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology. These efforts ultimately enabled the company to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
Agencies could replicate the DARPA model to hire entrepreneurial, world-class experts who will take calculated risks to solve our most persistent public problems.
Encourage experimentation within federal service grants and agencies
Agencies typically define problems and solutions in terms that fit within existing organizational missions and authorities. However, the responsibility to solve a societal problem does not fall on one agency. As a result, agencies must work to solve challenges simultaneously and often together, focusing on the problem first rather than the existing policies, processes and structures that affect possible solutions. In short, the problems should drive the policy tools, not the reverse.
This approach would enable government to carry out its mission more effectively in countless ways. To give but one example: Over 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant. A coordinated effort to address this problem would include developing viable alternatives to transplants, adjusting Medicare insurance incentives to reward transplantation and creating better policies to recover more organs.
Creating more opportunities for cross-agency collaboration would also enable federal leaders to braid federal grant funds, which involves pooling funds toward a common outcome. This shift would help leaders across agencies meet top-level goals and set aside some funding to develop a high-risk, high-reward problem-solving strategy.
Building 21st-century innovation ecosystems
Building new R&D ecosystems for the public good will require innovation and experimentation. Federal leaders should consider using the DARPA program manager model, fostering cross-agency collaboration and braiding federal grant funds to solve challenging societal problems. Other strategies not touched on here—like developing public-private partnerships to make “late-stage” investments beyond federal R&D, providing evergreen funds to innovators and creating new ways to get their products into the hands of relevant communities—may also prove fruitful.
The government has already piloted a variety of innovative R&D models to solve challenges in the fields of technology, defense, health and energy. It is now time to do the same to solve our core social and economic challenges.