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Home > Focus > A discussion with Congressman Michael E. Capuano - part 2

A discussion with Congressman Michael E. Capuano - part 2

by Redazione FGB [1], 24 October 2011

In this, the first of a series of interviews with some of the major players in the US innovation and scientific research scene, Jonathan Hankins talks to Congressman Michael E. Capuano [2], whose territory in Boston hosts some of the biggest names in research and innovation today.

(A discussion with Congressman Michael E. Capuano - ...continues from the previous entry [3])

Jonathan Hankins
I wanted to ask you about the recent budget cuts and what you feel the effects will be upon innovation.

Congressman Michael E. Capuano
It is going to be terrible, I firmly believe that basic research is what the government should be investing in, corporations cannot and will not do it, especially in difficult times. They do applied research, not basic.
But you cannot have applied research until you have had basic research and if the government doesn't do it? It doesn't pay, you have to make a hundred mistakes before you get one thing that might one day become commercialized.
It is a very expensive thing to do, but I believe that when an innovation is made it is good for society, even if some company may reap the specific benefit, that company will spin off other companies, and hire thousands of people and on and on.
So for me I think the government should be involved in basic research and yet because the failure rate is so high, as it must be, and always has been, and because you don't even know most of what may result, what insights may arise, and because it's only done in certain areas, basic research is associated with large institutions, Universities, not all of it but most of it, and those large universities don't tend to be in the middle of cornfields but they tend to be in urban areas, not all, but again exceptions to the rule, and because of that it becomes a very easy thing to cut in the short term, and scientists don't tend to be a very big political force. Because of that it is a wonderfully easy issue to cut.
But the problem is once you cut it you put yourself five or ten years or whatever the number is going to be behind the curve, because somebody else is going to do it.


China won't do too much of it, they will do some of it but they are not really ready, but Israel is, Europe is. You know half of the Europeans that are doing biotech scientific research are doing it with American scientists, many of whom came from the Greater Boston area, and that's OK it is the normal course of business. They are not stupid, they are not some third world country, they are breathing down our necks all the time and sometimes they are ahead of us.
Europe is the most important in this field, China has some and India has some but it is Europe with the real cutting edge stuff.
But if you give up on it for five years, just pick a time-frame, the others are not going to stop. Some will, Greece probably won't be doing a lot of cutting edge research but Germany will be, and who knows, there is no way to tell. And that is the business end of it.
But from the humanity end of it don't you want the next discovery to be made, to make your life better? The history of mankind is based on scientific research and discovery.
Why wouldn't you want every advancement? But corporations won't be doing it, and nor should they, they have never done it. The best scientific research has always been funded by privates and not-for-profits, or by the government.
So for me, I think it's a huge mistake if we make cuts in scientific research, because we do the basic stuff and no-one else will do it.
Yet I think it is also inevitable that they will make those cuts. They are an easy political cut to make. I will not have 10000 people screaming at my door, and I come from a district where basic research is done, yet if I cut senior housing I will have 100000 people outside, as will every other member of Congress, so it is an easy target.
But it is a short sighted target.

One of the Foundation's aims is to try and promote best practices within innovation, but my interpretation is the belief that best practices can be upheld through the law and that the law can maintain ethically correct practices is flawed.
I may follow the law but not behave responsibly.  How do you feel about this argument, in your position as both a lawyer and a law maker?

I agree with you, but it is human nature to cut costs. Those issues are not a problem when they are done in America or Europe for the most part.
But the same oil companies that may be doing wonderful things in the North Atlantic or USA will go to the Congo and couldn't care less about polluting the country, because they cut corners, nobody is there to enforce it so they may be a wonderful company in one place but the way they act in another place is probably not so good.
In the final analysis I think it is all good to say we should, but there has to be a government to enforce it, or a society (which is a form of government) to enforce whatever rules there are.
We had BP in front of us after the Gulf oil spill, and everybody was concerned about some kind of blow out gasket, but I was only interested in one thing.
I said now let me ask you a question, this gasket that you say costs 500 000 dollars and so you didn't use, because you weren't required to use it here in America, (I knew the answer anyway, I am a lawyer, I don't ask questions I don't know the answer to), are you required to do it in the North Sea? Are you required to do it in Canada? And the truth, as I know, is yes.
And did you do it? And the answer is yes. And did you make money on those fields or were they charitable donations?  And the answer is well of course they made money. And so why don't we have those best practices here, there is no argument not to have it imposed in the Gulf.
If you can do the exact same thing in the North Sea, being required to do so by the government of Norway, and make money, well good for you, and you should be required to do it in the Gulf, and you can still make money, you cannot make any business argument against doing it here.
It is a classic example: the company followed a best practice when they were required to do a best practice. No questions. They did not say 'well I'm sorry I'm not coming to Norway because you make us do this'.
So in the final analysis responsibility is a good thing to set forth, but the exception makes the rule, and there will always be someone that is not willing to be responsible unless required to be responsible. That is what governments do.

You represent the cutting edge of the scientific world, MIT to name just one, do you feel pressure, or do people apply pressure to promote or to come some way towards appeasing their particular needs?

Nobody applies pressure, I cannot think of anybody that has ever applied pressure in a successful way, it is not the way to approach me. At the same time, when you are running for office... I knew what was in the district before, they didn't just spring up yesterday, and you tell people how you feel.
When it comes to scientific research I look at it as two things, the great esteem of humanity, I like it, but it is an economic engine here. That is what we do here.
We used to be a textile manufacturing area, shoes especially; we were a meat slaughtering capital, all kinds of things.
We are a high tech capital now, but we used to be the only high tech capital, now we are not the only one.
Everything we do here is based upon scientific innovation, and it wasn't done in the pursuit of some kind of scheme, it just grew out of habit.
We have the right mix of universities, and hospitals, and venture capitalists and the physical location, all kinds of things that just happened to come together.
And like it or not, intellectual capital is our economy now, it is what we do, and which politician wouldn't or shouldn't be involved in protecting the economic interests of their district.
Scientific research is a major part of the economic activity here. Without it I don't know what we would do. We don't have oil here, we don't have wheat fields and we don't have gold. We don't have any of those things but we have one thing that we have almost more of than anybody else in the world and that is intellectual capital, the ability to attract people like you.
For me the only thing I would change is that I would make you stay here. I figure that if you want to come here and get an education we want you to do that, but then we want to keep you. We are stupidly doing just the opposite. We bring people here and then we kick them out, which again is incredibly short sighted.
I remind people all the time that Einstein, Fermi, Marconi, they weren't born here.
But they came here and they created their great things here. And I want the next guy, whose name I don't know, and comes from some corner of the world, and I don't care where they come from if they are the brightest.
I have sciences going on here that I can't even pronounce. They are doing some type of scientific work that I don't know what it is, but I don't have to. I have photonics going on. They have explained 20 times what photonics is and I understand it, then I forget it and I can't remember what it is.
And there are other things going on and I have no clue, but I know one thing, that the photonic people might find some answer to cheap reliable energy going forward. They may not, but if it happens I want the chances of it happening here to be greater than anywhere else. Not because it is going to become the photonics capital of the world.
It will for a short period of time, we are the bio capital of the world for the moment, but it won't last. Pick a time frame, it has already spread but it started here, just like high tech.
The high tech world started here, and now it has spread and everyone thinks about Silicon Valley.
But Silicon Valley was second. They advanced over us because we held back in certain things and because it is very expensive to do business here.
I don't want it to be cheap! Cheap to do business you can do anywhere.
It is cheap in China, cheaper than it will ever be here, but China isn't the cheapest anymore, we've got Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is why we no longer do textiles, not because we are not good at it, it is just because you can make a shirt cheaper in a million different places.
The Bassetti company probably don't make their sheets in Italy any more, I have no idea but they probably make them in Bangladesh or India, and that is the nature of business, it will happen in bio, it will happen in every new field, and I am not worried about that.
Those are low wage jobs. I am much more interested in high wage jobs to maintain the quality of life that we have here. You have seen the house prices in Cambridge.
The quality of the housing is no better than it is in 90% of the developed world, but they are a lot more expensive.
Now that is good and bad, don't get me wrong, but I don't want those houses to lose their value.
They will lose their value if people can't afford them or if people no longer want to come here, and they can continue to afford them if we pay them better.
The only way we can pay them better is to provide jobs that no-one else in the world can do. Right now that happens to be life sciences.
But we are not the only ones that do it, and little by little the rest of the world is going to catch up and my hope is that by that time we are on to the next thing, whatever it is going to be, and we don't know what it is going to be.
But if not then this place will suffer. But if we can stay ahead of the curve and I think we have a very good chance of staying ahead of the curve, if people like me understand our economy, and our economy is intellectual capital, it is part of my job to maintain the competitive edge in what we do.
I feel no external pressure, only pressure from myself. It is not that hard. People help me do it all the time.


(photo: Crowd forming [4] by TechSavi from Flickr)

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  4. 4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/techsavi/4129634131/
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