A couple of years ago, Mark Muro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, noticed, along with some of his colleagues, that when politicians and businesspeople debated how the U.S. could be more economically competitive, the conversations tended to focus on promoting certain innovative industries. But, more often than not, the discussions said as much about who held the microphone as they did about what mattered for growth; that is, people kept talking about the industries in which they were involved, instead of figuring out what the most innovative industries had in common and how their successes could be replicated. “The manufacturing people promote manufacturing,” Muro told me. “There is a separate energy discussion. And meanwhile we have a vivid, sophisticated, but somewhat disconnected ‘high-tech’ or digital discussion ongoing.” So Muro and his colleagues at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program identified a few simple traits that are associated with innovation, and grouped together the industries that share those traits to come up with what Muro describes as a “super-sector.” Then they set out to learn where this super-sector of advanced industries exists in the United States, and what lessons could be gleaned from those places.
On Tuesday, Brookings is publishing its findings in an eighty-eight-page report. Some of the industries that comprise their super-sector have an old-fashioned ring (“Clay Products,” “Ship and Boat Building,” and “Metal Ore Mining” are grouped together with “Software Publishers” and “Communications Equipment”), but they share two important features. They invest a great deal in research and development—more than four hundred and fifty dollars per worker—and they employ high proportions of people from the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, collectively known as the S.T.E.M. fields. As a whole, the super-sector is responsible for seventeen per cent of U.S. G.D.P. and accounts for nearly two-thirds of our exports. It also employs eighty per cent of our engineers and makes up ninety per cent of our private R. & D. spending. But the super-sector is also at risk, Muro and his colleagues argue, because the U.S. runs a trade deficit in most advanced industries. The Brookings report, like many Brookings reports, is as much a call to action as it is a research document—urging governments and business groups to invest more, and more effectively, in innovative industries.