Crisis Innovation Policy from World War II to COVID-19
Innovation policy can be a crucial component of governments' responses to crises. Because speed is a paramount objective, crisis innovation may also require different policy tools than innovation policy in non-crisis times, raising distinct questions and tradeoffs. In this paper, we survey the US policy response to two crises where innovation was crucial to a resolution: World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic. After providing an overview of the main elements of each of these efforts, we discuss how they compare, and to what degree their differences reflect the nature of the central innovation policy problems and the maturity of the US innovation system. We then explore four key tradeoffs for crisis innovation policy—top-down versus bottom-up priority setting, concentrated versus distributed funding, patent policy, and managing disruptions to the innovation system—and provide a logic for policy choices. Finally, we describe the longer-run impacts of the World War II effort and use these lessons to speculate on the potential long-run effects of the COVID-19 crisis on innovation policy and the innovation system.
We thank Josh Lerner, Scott Stern, Ken Shadlen, Sherry Glied, and participants at the 2021 NBER EIPE workshop for helpful comments. We also thank Harvard Business School and the NBER Innovation Policy grant (2016) for financial support. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1951470. All errors are our own. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.