R&D, Efficiency, and Optimism with Dr. Melissa Flagg

“The scientists in this country, they want to win. Right? They’re not this group of people who are all sitting around kumbaya collaborating because it’s nice. They collaborate because they’re like, “You’re the best in the world. I want your idea on my paper, and we want to be first to publish. And we want to beat everyone else on earth to this idea.”” – Dr. Melissa Flagg

Dr. Melissa Flagg joins host Ken Harbaugh to talk about R&D in the United States and efficiency in the Department of Defense – plus, why she finds optimism in science and history.

Dr. Flagg is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and has served in a number of roles within the Department of Defense, most recently as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research. Find Melissa on Twitter at @flaggster73.

ACME General: My guest today is Dr. Melissa Flagg. She’s a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, and has served in a number of roles within the Department of Defense (DoD), most recently as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research. Dr. Flagg, thanks so much for coming on Accelerate Defense. 

Melissa Flagg: Thanks so much for having me.

ACME General: I’ve been following you on Twitter, and one of the things that jumped out at me was your bio at the top which includes this little phrase –”Lover of science and optimism.” I hear that come through a lot in the things you write, in the interviews you’ve done. Why is that such an animating principle of your approach to technology and public service? We do, after all, live in complicated and dangerous times.

MF: I love that you asked me that question because it’s so much of a core part of who I am, and maybe even a core value that I hold. I feel like first of all, the world has always felt like complicated and dangerous times, right? I’m sure that in the Industrial Revolution, people were overwhelmed by mechanization, and they’d never had the noise and the pollution that surrounded them. And it must have felt overwhelming. Right?

So I try to remind myself, we have so many more humans on the planet. We do have our own crushing problems and shocking new capabilities. And we feel like it is unique, but it is probably not tremendously unique in the history of the universe.

And also, that there are a lot of people who have become experts in managing a problem. Almost like a drug company that sells you a drug to take everyday for diabetes. They don’t necessarily want to cure diabetes, right? And I’ve never wanted to become a person whose identity was so associated with a problem, that I forgot that my job as a scientist is to expand the boundaries of knowledge and discovery, and to actually solve things, and to move on to the next one.

So for me, there is this tremendous optimism that is required, that I have to believe that problems are solvable, and that we can move on to the next. Or I’ll just become another person who’s mired in my entire expertise being aligned to the sustainment of a problem. And that’s just not who I am.

ACME General: When you talk about problem solving in the writing you’ve done, in the interviews you’ve given, you’re talking about real-world problems. You certainly wear the scientist hat, but can you share a little bit about your journey? 

MF: Absolutely. I am from the country. I was born in Northeast Arkansas. I grew up in Southeast Missouri. My dad, we had a family farm in Arkansas. We’re just in the middle of selling that now, that is a working soybean and cotton farm.

So I grew up with hyper practical people. My mom was a vocational teacher. My dad was a farmer and a farm loan manager. And their view of college was a way to get a better job. Right? So I went to pharmacy school and I was like, “I’m really not good with sick people. I’m not nice enough. I need to find something else to do.” Even the pharmacist I worked for was like, “You need to go to grad school.”

So off I went, and I became a chemist, and I loved it. I’m a natural products chemist by my background. But I also realized it was too far separated from the world. I’m just too much of an extrovert to sit in a lab for the rest of my life removed from the real world problems. And I have some respect for it, but it just wasn’t going to suit my personality.

So I actually went and did a fellowship in Washington at the State Department and had all these dreams of saving the world and working on sustainable development. And 9/11 happened the week that I arrived in Washington DC. So talk about just altering the entire path of my life.

So while I was at the State Department, I actually helped out a guy that worked for the Navy, Jim DeCorpo. He is responsible for probably my entire career, because he gave me a call one day and said, “Hey, I heard you’re looking for a new job. Why don’t you come over to London and join us at the Office of Naval Research Global?”

So I literally get on a plane in January of 2004. I don’t really know my job description. I’ve never had any experience with the military, and I arrive. And in the first few months they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you really know nothing about the military. This won’t do at all.” So they had this Scientist to Sea program, and they sent me out on this old amphib, the Shreveport. She’s long been sent to the docks, I guess.

ACME General: Razor blades, yeah.

MF: Exactly. Scrap metal. But I got to stand on the catwalk and the well deck while they flooded it. And you can just imagine the Marines on their little boats. Right? Going out to storm a beach and watching while they did flight deck operation certifications. Because these were kids, right? They were about to go out to the Gulf. They were getting certified to deploy.

And as I’m sitting there at night, out kind of walking around the deck and just chatting with sailors and hearing about their lives, you just start to realize this is real., Right? This is life or death. They need technologies that are better than the adversaries that allow them to go out, do the mission that we have sent them to do, that we as Americans have elected people who decided you will go out and do this mission. And then we can bring them home in one piece. And when we fail to do that, we do our best to put them back together again, and to make sure that the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, that we do better for them.

So for me, the future, that vision of science was always very rooted in this moment. There was this old crusty senior chief. I don’t remember his name. He was amazing. He was like something out of a graphic novel. Right? And he thought it was hilarious to just kind of take me to school a little bit. And he walked around telling me when and how in his career technology had done stupid things. And he talked about these fancy radios we’d sent out, and they didn’t work with any of the other radios. And that at the end of the day, he would sometimes just go to RadioShack before he deployed to make sure that they would have interoperable radios. And I was just like holy cow, that can’t happen.

So I do feel like it sort of hearkened back to my original beginning of my life of just farming is like existential crisis all the time. Right? It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s too wet. It’s too dry. Right? And you’re always one bad year away from bankruptcy and starvation. And I felt like the military also had that, in a much more extreme way, had that real just visceral connection to life and death that made me feel present, that required me to remember the mission at all times. And it just gave me a deep love for the Navy. The Navy was good to me, but also they just truly made me remember that I’m a part of something bigger. That this isn’t an individual sport, right? It’s a team sport. And it really wasn’t about me.

And again, not getting my identity so wrapped up in some small thing that I’m good at, but really remembering I’m here to do what you need me to do. And that that’s what I want to be good at.

ACME General: That RadioShack story, it really hits home because I can’t tell you how many times either we had to do things like that in my units, or I’ve heard horror stories from others. Probably not RadioShack these days. I don’t think they’re around anymore, but Amazon.

MF: I dated both of us.

ACME General: Right. Right. I want to fast forward, because the Center for Security and Emerging Technology released a report very recently with you as a lead author on it, that really sends up the flare on some of the challenges with our innovation ecosystem, especially as compared to the leapfrogging that near peer competitors are engaged in. Can you summarize for us the top line or two of that report and why you’re so concerned about advancements elsewhere?

MF: So I think there are a couple of maybe just bottom line statistics that are important to put out. Which is first of all, the world is not changing when it comes to the landscape of science. The world has already changed. We decided to get worried about it this year. But this is not new.

In 2000 roughly, the global R&D annual budget, so the R&D money that the entire world was spending was around $890 billion. Today, that’s well over $2.2 trillion annually. The U.S. has gone from in the ’70s being almost 70% of global R&D to now being 25% of global R&D. And that is not because we spend less. It is because the world looked around and realized, “This is good for our economies. This is how we become strong as the military.” It became such a core part of economic development and competitiveness generally, that everyone doubled down.

So this idea that we hold from a lot of our structures and mechanisms from the post-World War II period where we are dominant, and we have all this unique technology and knowledge that no one else on earth has, has really disappeared. It’s just that our frameworks and our emotional willingness to accept that is not there yet.

I think the other thing that’s really powerful, and really interesting, and really challenging about this global competition is that militaries tend to like things to be organized top down, strategic, highly structured. Basically autocratic, right? Which is good in a military structure, but which doesn’t work very well when it comes to a country like the United States who we play to our strengths when we’re working from the bottom up. That is who we are as a nation. It’s part of our founding principles from as far back as the 1700s. And if we ignore that, then we are not playing to our own strengths, which I think is a real problem.

So if you also look at the change just domestically when it comes to R&D if you go back to the ’70s, you also saw a very similar ratio within our country where about 70% of the R&D was federally funded. So industry and universities were tightly aligned to the federal government because they were the overwhelming source of R&D funding.

Today, the federal government is less than 22% of domestic R&D funding. So about 69% of what’s left of that comes from industry. And the rest of it is made up by philanthropies, and academic endowments, and states, localities, etc.

So the idea that the federal government is going to decide what American R&D does without pulling them in as partners I think is a fantasy. So when we start to really lean into these problems in these conversations, like research security, research integrity, how do we actually make sure that the research in our universities and in our industry are safe? How do we really make sure that we’re innovating at a pace that keeps us competitive with our adversaries, and helps us to understand how to better collaborate with our allies? It’s really challenging because the federal government shows up to be in charge of that, but they really don’t represent the majority of American R&D.

So again, our structures and our emotional connection to being ‘in charge’ as the federal government has not really caught up with our reality of dis-aggregation that has already happened. We’ve had a massive decentralization in our R&D structure, really reverting back to a norm of the pre world wars, but that feels very different because it’s definitely a departure from our lived experience, those of us who are still walking this earth.

But we really are challenged because now we look at a country like China that is about 25% of global R&D as well. So let’s go back and let me just emphasize the U.S. is 25% of global R&D. China’s about 25% of global R&D. But remember, this leaves well over $1 trillion of R&D funding annually that is in neither of our countries.

So the idea that we’re going to frame this global situation as a bilateral competition is a little crazy, and really leaves a lot of collaborative assets on the table. And also leaves a huge space for being technologically surprised if you’re not looking at what’s developing in a lot of this sort of more neutral space.

But I do feel like it’s important to remember that the U.S. and China have very different cultures, very different histories. We’re developing technologies in very different ways and for different domestic purposes. As well as different concepts of what our militaries need to be competitive. But that we do not control our population in the same way China does, nor do we want to try. So how do we actually start to rethink our structures and how we play to those strengths in a decentralized system, rather than trying to be China?

ACME General: I want to get to that rethinking of our structures. Because you have said that there’s plenty of money. When you talk about the decreasing share of R&D that federal investment represents, you’re not necessarily bemoaning that fact. You’re calling attention to the antiquated structures around it. And I’m drawn to this quote in particular of yours, because it brings in not just the industrial investments, but some other players as well. You wrote, or this may be from an interview,

“How do we empower all of the industrial and philanthropic foundations that we have, not to pit them against each other to get to the cheapest thing, but to actually build up the nation while we’re building up the military?” Would love your reaction to that. 

MF: Absolutely. I feel like that we as a government decided that we were going to pretend to be a company. We got sort of enamored with Silicon valley, right? So we decided we were going to go out and be cheap, and efficient, and we were going to create competition. But it’s like okay, do I really want to pit industry, and states, and philanthropies against each other to get the cheapest thing I can get when I’m no longer the biggest checkbook sitting around? Or do I want to go out and amplify what they’re already doing? And there’s a really good example of this recently, where one of the services decided to open a new command and they’re like, “We’re going to be like Amazon,” right? And they did this competition across the country, and they left a lot of hard feelings in their wake. Because communities put a lot of time, effort, expertise, and money into competing for this. And then the feeling was at the end that they already kind of knew the answer before they started the process.

And they went to a place that offered them a massive free location. That state ponied up a ton of money with the idea that they were going to get money back for that service being in their region.

For me, that’s completely the antithesis of what this new world calls for. Had they gone out and incentivized, “We’re going to go to the place, or we’re going to accept the proposal that can show that you’re going to leverage the broadest number of states, the broadest number of universities, the broadest number of companies, and philanthropies, and other sources of private and local funding that will make our presence there a stimulus for this hugely increased focus on things that we believe are critical to the national good.” Not, “We want to make you dislike each other. And only the winner will get access to the value that the federal government brings to the table.”

So I do feel like it’s an important aspect to rethink that this isn’t about ‘efficiency’ in the perspective of getting the cheapest thing you can get from the taxpayers who paid you that money to begin with let’s not forget, right? We’re not here to try to screw the taxpayer. We’re here to do the opposite. So for me, we’ve really got to force places like the military to rethink what efficiency means.

ACME General: Talk to us about your war on efficiency. What does that mean? And how’s it going?

MF: I’m failing miserably, but I still am tilting at that windmill Ken. I do believe that the pendulum has swung way too far. Right? So let’s think about innovation, because I am the science guy. I spend a lot of my time thinking about things like quantum, and artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology, and novel materials. Things that will give soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are born today an opportunity to stay safe, relevant, and effective on the battlefield. Right?

And in order to do that, if you’re worried about picking a winner or picking an idea today from the thousand budding ideas that we have no idea which one is going to be the best, and only focusing on that and doing it as cheaply as possible, you’ve lost this competition. Period, full stop. You’ve lost. It isn’t the way science works. You don’t get to schedule an intellectual breakthrough in five years on a Wednesday at 12:00 PM. It just isn’t how it works. Right?

And it’s also we’ve become so obsessed with project-based funding that we’ve forgotten that actually the things that make us great both in the military and in science, which are very similar in this way, are actually incredibly well-trained people with access to equipment, and the ability to prototype, and play, and learn, and fail, and try again. That that system is something America is really good and it’s something that we’ve stopped supporting. We talk about it a lot, but we don’t put our support into basic infrastructure, and training, and education. So we’ve just doubled down into this weird part that’s easier for program managers to evaluate and for people to do oversight of, rather than the structures that actually lead to the biggest novel breakthroughs, which is really patient funding and real access to education and the tools to play, right? The tools to experiment.

And the military is the same way. If you go back and you think about the types of experimentation that we allowed uniform officers to do in the ’70s, those things would never be allowed today.

So I think the other aspect of efficiency that is really problematic and actually has caused some of this as well is that we decided, “Hey, it’s cheaper if I move all the HR people over to HR, and they’re not a part of the team.” Right? They’re not an actual part of the mission oriented team. “And I’m going to move all the contracts people over to contracts by themselves. They’re not going to be a part of a team. And I’m going to move all the scientists over to the science organization, and they’re not going to be a part of the team.”

But it was cheaper, it’s ‘efficient’ to have all the HR people together and the contracts people together for everything except accomplishing the mission. So I believe we have divorced ourselves from reality and we have become obsessed. It’s a peacetime military. We have become so obsessed with efficiency and being cheap, that we are wasting $750 billion a year on things that don’t accomplish the mission. But they look great on metrics. And just, I think that it is a travesty, and one we should talk about more.

ACME General: We love rants on Accelerate Defense. So thank you. I think you’re largely right, and it tees up this next idea perfectly, this hyper focus on efficiency. In particular, I want you to talk about the primes and their vital role, but how we can better facilitate the collaboration with non-traditionals, which are the messy part of innovation. Right? And as you’ve said, messiness is dynamism. How do we bridge that gap? What are we doing well? What can we do better? And who else do we need to bring in to facilitate this collaboration?

MF: Yeah. I love this topic so much, just because I feel like the primes have gotten a really bad rap. Right? I feel like we got in this period of low self- esteem. It’s like trying to date somebody who’s like, “Please tell me I’m not fat.” Right? All the time. The DoD is just like, “I promise. We’re innovative.” Oh God. But we suck. We suck. And the primes, they suck too. And we wring our hands, and we wring our hands. And it’s like oh my God, that’s so unattractive in a partner. Just get some self-esteem. We have cool missions, we have hard problems. We have amazing military folks with these incredible experiences that are exciting people to partner with and are super creative. We have a technical community that has solved some of the hardest problems on earth, and the primes have done some of the most incredible things. 

But it’s true that the primes, they struggle a lot because they adopt, in order to be able to work effectively with the Department of Defense. They adopt a lot of the Department of Defense culture. So this culture of hyper accountability, this culture of oversight of everything, of do not take risk on contracts or anything else, limit the people you can hire to a highly clearable cadre of people based on very old clearance requirements. Right? The idea that you’re going to not give someone a clearance because they’re smoking pot in a state where it’s legal is crazy, right? And yet, here’s where we are. So the primes have found themselves becoming almost more extreme versions of DoD. It’s very hard for these guys to accomplish what they need to accomplish within the requirements, and structures, and constraints that are placed on them.

So they have a lot of challenges. And yet they’ve still created, I think right now what’s happening in the Army is this test of a laser on a striker tank that they actually took over the line in less than three years from the time that DoD or Army finally said, “We’re just going to do it.” And they allowed people to do this ‘bake off’ of these lasers. General Thurgood, and Craig Robbins, Dr. Craig Robbins are really responsible for it. And I’ve loved watching it happen because it’s this great partnership where a prime really stepped up and did something big in a very short period of time, because DoD blew away all of the roadblocks. But it took a lot of personal championing on the part of a three star general to make that happen. Right?

So now when we say, “But you’re not innovative. Go work with all these little companies,” We forget that actually these little companies are very hard to work with. They don’t know all the rules and requirements of DoD. 

So there’s all of this weird insider baseball that the primes really know, that these small companies that we want them to work with don’t know. And they’re also concerned that their ideas are going to get stolen by these large primes pumped into these teams of 100,000 scientists and engineers. And they’re just going to take the idea and make it themselves.

All of these are legitimate challenges and concerns on both sides. I feel like we really need Congress and the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) to give the DoD some room to experiment with primes, where everything isn’t necessarily a full and open competition, right? Where we could sit down with a prime and say let’s share a competition where we have a goal we want to accomplish. We’ll guarantee you a contract at the end, and we’ll help co-fund or something the space, right? Where all of these small companies can come in and sort of vie against each other for the best cool idea. And then you integrate that in. And that way, we can kind of help be a broker almost of a safe way to share, right? The government sees what the IP was that came from the small companies, etc.

Or, we need consortia that aren’t like everyone has to play ball with everyone. But we have a major company. And then all the small companies that want to come in and potentially work with that integrator are allowed to, right? So not necessarily competitive consortia, but consortia that just take all the contracting burdens off the table, have all the IP agreements done upfront, and allow for very fast individual partnerships to happen within that consortia.

These are old ideas. But I think we’ve got to get serious about seeing the primes as partners, and that we have to figure out how to incentivize them and create spaces that are safe for small companies to work with them so that we’re actually getting what we want and not just becoming stewards of the problem on television and in WIRED Magazine saying how bad everything is without actually just leaning in to fix it.

ACME General: And it’s going to take a lot more than a new line item in the NDAA. This sounds like the way you’re describing it, a multi-vector problem where you need, obviously, some policy shifts. You need mindset shifts within organizations. Most of all, you need leadership, both congressional, and uniformed. But I guess the first thing is recognizing the challenges and the strengths that each of these actors bring to the table.

MF: That is what I think is so important Ken. We’re so aware of the problems, but we never sit down and actually outline our strengths, and our capabilities. What we have to work with, what we can already do. I mean, what General Thurgood did with this laser on a striker, there were no policy changes. There was no radical acquisition reform, right? But it took insane leadership, right? He blasted down barriers.

And that is what it takes right now. It takes sheer brute force at a very high level for three full years in order to accomplish it. So it’s not illegal. It’s just disincentivized at every single level of the system.

So I agree with you. This is a huge change that needs to happen. But if we don’t start recognizing the actual goal and going in with a scalpel and changing the incentives in every part of this structure, which doesn’t take anything from Congress, which doesn’t take any radical acquisition reform. But it does take leadership. And it does take understanding the problem. But not focusing on the problem, focusing on the solution, right? It’s not trivial for sure.

ACME General: On this idea of strengths, maybe I can provoke another mini rant here. But I have another quote of yours in front of me, which I love. You said, “We’re so dynamic that it feels messy. It feels overwhelming. But our strength is this messiness, this dynamism, this diversity.” 

MF: Yeah. I mean to me, this is why I do what I do. Right? I mean, what an incredible country. The scientists in this country, they want to win. Right? They’re not this group of people who are all sitting around kumbaya collaborating because it’s nice. They collaborate because they’re like, “You’re the best in the world. I want your idea on my paper, and we want to be first to publish. And we want to beat everyone else on earth to this idea.” Right? And the engineers are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” you scientists and your ideas. “I want to be the first one to make it work.” Right? And they’re fighting with each other. And the companies are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you engineers. I want to be the first one to prove I can actually make money on it.” Right? “I want to make a product that sells, that can plug into other stuff.” And these primes are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, all you startups. I want to find out a way to stick that into a jet, or a ship, or a submarine.” Right? “A platform. And see if we can actually make it scale in its capability, scale in its impact to something really big and the big integrated product.”

To me at every step of the way, so much of this is characterized by competition, by secrecy, by sharp elbows, by a weirdly high level of arrogance and hilariousness that is incredibly opaque, terribly messy, and deeply offensive to people who want to be in charge of stuff from on high and say, “But I scheduled and intellectual breakthrough on that Wednesday in five years at 12:00 PM. I’m not 100% sure that you’re where you’re supposed to be on your roadmap right now.” Right? And they’re just like eye rolls, laughing at you.

And what I believe we ought to be doing is working through, that is our strength. That is the clay that we have in this country to make into something. Why don’t we stop trying to change the clay into some other material, right? Why don’t we start focusing on what are all the systems, and structures, and organizational architectures, and leadership styles that work to convert that clay into the systems capabilities that I need for the military and for the greater national good? I don’t understand why we’re so focused … and here is the rant, right? We’re so focused on wanting Americans to be something else. It’s offensive. It’s just like it’s insulting. We’re good at what we’re good at. Let’s use it.

ACME General: You’ve got a new paper coming out. And I was hoping you could give us a bit of a teaser on innovation tourism.

MF: Yeah. So I hear so much about how we have these small innovation offices, the X offices I call them, right? They’re formerly known as DIUx, and NavalX, and AFWERX, SOFWERX. And the Army version doesn’t actually have an X on it. So I’ll cut them some slack. But all of these small offices that are supposed to go out and act like venture capitalists, and they’re going to run around, and do prizes, and find small companies that are doing cool things, and give them SBIRs and STTRs or whatever.

And we do all of this through research and development money. And it’s like DoD had a collective stroke and just forget that R&D money isn’t how we buy systems. Right? I mean, the DoD doesn’t make stuff. We buy stuff. And we buy stuff through procurement dollars. And procurement dollars are in the palm. And anything you’re doing in R&D is small potatoes, right? The 6-1 to 6-3 basic research to advanced technology accounts are less than 10% of the total R&D accounts.

And this is the money that, 6-3 dollars is where a lot of these X offices are being funded. And they’re being funded, I think DIUx, or DIU’s funding is somewhere around I don’t know, $60 million a year or something. And we’re going to fix the $140 billion annual budget of procurement, we’re going to fix that with an office that’s giving out research dollars to companies? In my mind, these offices, they’re great. I’m not mad at these offices. I’m mad at the expectation we placed on them. Right? These offices are going out and it’s like akin to buying a tee shirt at a shop in a town where you’re going as a tourist. Right? You’re going to go in. Is that shop glad you bought a tee shirt? Yeah. Is that tee shirt you bought going to keep them in business? No. If you want to keep him in business, they need you to have a standing order of 5,000 tee shirts a month, right? Not one when you were on vacation, and then you left and went on vacation to another town to buy a t-shirt there.

So we come around, we give them a SIBR here, we give them a SIBR there. Even if we give them a phase two or phase three SIBR, which is up in the millions, that still doesn’t keep a business in business very long. Right?

So why don’t we tell procurement officers, PEOs and program managers, “You are required to explain how you have leveraged the knowledge of these innovation offices before you wrote an RFI or a solicitation for a contract. You are required to make sure that you’ve articulated. Yeah, we know what the state-of-the-art is because we’ve talked to these tech scouts in these offices. And we are reflecting a de-risked state of the art in our solicitations.” And if companies come back and say they can’t do it, we will happily give them a list of small companies that we know can do it. Because we’ve already funded them with SIBRs or other small research grants and prizes.

It’s not rocket science, but we’ve confused these innovation offices that are much more like tourism than they are strategy, with having an overall innovation strategy that’s somehow going to solve a problem. And we’ve literally not touched the one incentive that is in charge of what actually goes into fielded military systems, the program managers. Which seems insane to me.

ACME General: It occurs to me in talking to you that for someone in a profession that is by nature forward-looking, you have a historical perspective on almost everything. As we close, I’m wondering if you can give us your thoughts on how that helps you as an innovator to be able to look back through a historical lens?

MF: I’ve got to credit a long dead historian A. Hunter Dupree for giving this to me. Several years ago, I read Science, the Endless Frontier by Vannevar Bush. And it occurred to me that I didn’t know very much about the United States pre-World War II. That in science and in the military, it seems like history starts in World War II, and we never talk about anything else.

So I found this book that he had written, which was Science in the Federal Government from the 1700s to 1940. And I read this book. And then I also read this short collection of essays that he wrote during the Industrial Revolution, or that he compiled. And in so many of those essays, they’re talking about Germany, but you literally could just replace China today. And I guess it just kind of blew my mind that we’d forgotten that there were lessons to be learned about who we are as a people, how we created these structures that we have, and how we fought against these structures, right? Pre-World War I for centuries. And then kind of accepted this massive centralization, and now we’re kind of fighting against it.

So for me, it helps me to look back and say, “There’s a reason for this. So you don’t need to think this is the end of time, or the end of the world, or the end of democracy.” We have been here before. And actually, there are ways that we coped with it. And there were ways that we found our way through that historically. So it gives me a source of optimism. History really does make me feel that optimism is realistic.

And I think as an innovator, I look back at some of the problems that we solved, and I realized these problems are solvable. It isn’t impossible to do something hard. So we should just get on with it. We’ve siloed these relationships between scientists and engineers, and startups, and small innovators, and large scaling kind of capabilities. We’ve siloed it so much that they’re fighting against each other.

And I feel like we need to get rid of this idea of a pipeline, and start thinking about it as soup. And we keep tasting the soup and you’re like, “It could use a little more of this. It could use a little more of that.” Right? And what we’re trying to do is get it perfect. But it’s a work in progress, and it can take a long time. And that again is something to celebrate. And this history anchors me in the fact that it’s possible. We’ve done it time and time again. We can do it if we just get out of our own way.

ACME General: Well Dr. Flagg, it has been great having you. Thanks so much for sharing your insights. We’d love to have you back.

MF: Thanks so much. It was a lot of fun.

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