FDR agreed. He immediately established the National Defense Research Commission with Bush as chairman. The NDRC went on to develop everything from the atomic bomb to sonar to the mass production of penicillin.
“It was deeply powerful leadership, connecting government, science and the private sector,” he explains Benjamin Jones, professor of strategy at the Kellogg School. “Not only was the NDRC able to coordinate and fund innovations, but it was also able to streamline bureaucracy.”
Today the country needs this kind of bold policy innovation again to fight the coronavirus, Jones explains. Funding and streamlining biomedical innovation will accelerate the discovery of a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19. This, in turn, will reduce the scale of human suffering, both in terms of lost lives and economic impact.
Jones and colleague Pierre Azoulay of MIT advocate a bold COVID-19 innovation policy at a recent article in Science Journal. Here, Jones lays out three steps that government should take to drive the necessary innovations.
Fund lots and lots of independent projects
The reality of biomedical research and development is that most ideas fail. That’s why, Jones says, federal funds must be spread far and wide.
However, this is not the norm for public or private funding of innovation.
“People tend to crowd into a narrow set of innovation avenues,” says Jones. “But if we play roulette and all put our money on the same number, we’re not improving our chances of winning collectively. You have to spread your bets.”
Imagine if the government spread its bets on 10,000 independent research and development efforts, Jones and Azoulay write. Even if each one has only a 0.1 percent chance of success, the odds of discovering at least five solid progressions are 97 percent.
And while the price tag for such an ambitious undertaking may seem high, it is small compared to the $18 billion in GDP losses the country is experiencing every day.
If you invest, say, $15 billion and the arrival of the vaccine moves up even one day, “it would pay for itself,” Jones says. “The stakes are really high.”
Think broadly about what the research is about
We also need to expand the definition of the types of research relevant to the fight against COVID-19, Jones says. Biomedicine may not solve all problems. Perhaps the solutions will come from engineering research – better designed test kits or a new material for door handles – or from information technology – perhaps using social media to help trace contacts.
However, a challenge here is that, like many of us, many non-biomedical researchers have been locked out of their offices during stay-at-home orders.
Instead, if they are committed to work on some aspect of the COVID-19 crisis, they should be designated as essential workers and allowed to return to their labs immediately, Jones says.
“A lot of groups broke up,” he says. “Shouldn’t they be able to work?”
Improve the process
One reason for the success of the NDRC (which was later folded into the newly created Office of Scientific Research and Development) was that it was empowered to move quickly and streamline otherwise slow processes.
That should be the case with the COVID-19 response, Jones says.
He and Azoulay are proposing a Defense Research Committee on COVID, which would have the authority to coordinate funding for innovations and the scaling up of any successful advances, as well as cutting red tape to speed up funding, testing and approvals.
“How can we rethink the ‘smart, slow, careful’ systems we have when we have the luxury of time, versus when we’re in an emergency?” says Jones.
For academic researchers, Jones and Azoulay suggest that any principal investigator currently in the NIH or NSF systems should be encouraged to apply for a coronavirus research grant. These applications will be minimally red tape and processed quickly for approval, with all relevant projects making the cut. Funding will be available within a week.
For the private sector, a program could be created to provide loans for research and development. If that money is spent on COVID-related innovations, the loans would be forgiven, the same way the Paycheck Protection Program offered small businesses forgivable loans if they spend most of the money on staff retention.
That would require less up-front vetting than is generally the case for R&D funding, Jones says. But labs would know they might be tested later, which would probably keep most people accountable. Plus, it’s better here to err on the side of speed and handle any headaches that come from misallocation later, Jones said.
“You want to have a bias to take action,” he says. “Trust them now. Give them the loan.”