Biden taps into a new 'discovering'

The president’s spending plans rely on a post-pandemic spirit of innovation that may be driven by a renewed curiosity.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Former Pittsburgh Steeler player Charlie Batch watches as Denver Daniels, 9, creates a 3D model airplane design during a "maker" bootcamp for students in the Pittsburgh area April 24.

In early April, the federal agency that was invented to reward inventiveness, the U.S. Patent Office, reinvented one of its incentives for new discoveries. It changed its awards program, known as Patents for Humanity, to solicit new inventions related to COVID-19. The pandemic had sparked a call for curiosity-driven breakthroughs.

This is what President Joe Biden might have meant Wednesday in his first speech to Congress, when he said America is “dreaming again, discovering again.” That shift is the basis of his proposals for a post-pandemic national renewal, starting with climate technologies. “Folks, there’s no reason American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries,” he cited as one example. “We have the brightest, best-trained people in the world.”

As more people come out of the pandemic shell of isolation and anxiety, will they be more curious, more inventive? Certainly, companies are rethinking the dynamics of work and the workplace. Schools have been forced to design new ways of learning. For the economy, the need has never been greater for inventions that will create wholly new types of jobs. Last year, the global workforce lost the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs.

“Now, more than ever, curiosity matters,” writes F.H. Buckley, a George Mason University professor in a new book, “Curiosity: And Its Twelve Rules for Life.” “In 2020, we learned just how much our health, our happiness, our sanity, depends upon it. ... There is only one way out of the madness, and that is to let our curiosity take us by the hand and lead us.”

He cites periods of history when “we seem to make a leap and shake off the fetters that bind us.” The key to curiosity, he writes, is to take an interest in other people, a form of love. Curiosity not only leads to new discoveries. It is also a cure for fear.

“Follow your curiosity, therefore,” he writes. “It will encourage you to take risks, to be creative, sociable, and entertaining. It will ask you to think about how you should live.”

Also in April, Congress held hearings on the future of American innovation. One expert, Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University, said the pandemic has shined a light on the “ecosystem” of science and innovation. Now, he said, the nation must mobilize to meet new challenges “while renewing and reinvigorating the promise of discovery and innovation to expand economic and social mobility.”

A big focus in the hearings was Mr. Biden’s plan to spend $50 billion for research in new technologies as a source of jobs. “Curiosity-driven research has proven to be an engine of economic growth,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation.

Curiosity, however, should not be for only material gain. As the U.S. Patent Office notes, its award system is designed to find success stories that “will inspire others to harness innovation for human progress.” The uses of adversity may be sweet, as Shakespeare said. But adversity can also liberate thought to see infinite possibilities.

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