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Moonshots are in. I’m not referring to space travel, although the regular launches and landings of space probes suggest that the conventional use of the word is apropos. Here, “moonshots” are grand, government-backed missions that unite the considerable powers of the state, its scientists and its entrepreneurs to accomplish a single goal.

There are many potential moonshots, from creating a vaccine for COVID-19 to solving global warming. What differentiates them from other problems is that they address extraordinary, if not existential, challenges.

The pursuit of moonshots is forcing a reassessment among governments that normally — wrongly in many cases — view industrial policy as an aberration, a dangerous indulgence that is inefficient at best and corrupt at worst. China’s impressive performance in its super-charged economic competition with the West has forced those governments to reconsider their opposition to greater intervention in the market.

While governments in the West — in the United States and the U.K., at least — consider themselves skeptical toward, if not hostile to, industrial policy, that is historical revisionism. While they may not have been as open about directing the private sector as their counterparts in developed economies in Asia — a policy that many economists acknowledge was responsible for the Asian miracle — there was far more economic intervention than is generally believed. Even if you ignore the long history in the U.S. of infant industry protection, the national highway bill, tax policy or generations of massive defense spending that benefited the entire economy, the more honest (and experienced) of the country’s first-generation technology entrepreneurs concede that Department of Defense funds provided the foundation for their success.

The myth of the broad-shouldered individual, struggling in obscurity, guided U.S. thinking and rhetoric, although policy makers periodically decided that strategic concerns demanded that they take action. The most famous intervention was the creation in 1987 of Sematech, a nonprofit consortium of the U.S. government and 14 semiconductor manufacturers that aimed to rebuild U.S. competitiveness after Japan became the dominant power in that industry. It worked and after nearly a decade, the group phased out U.S. government spending.

The prospect of China prevailing in the race to develop and deploy new technologies has prompted another reassessment of the U.S. government’s role in the economy — and semiconductors are again part of the story. Almost every industry in the U.S. that uses semiconductors has complained of shortages this year, although automakers have been the loudest.

Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act included the American Foundries Act of 2020, which provided some $15 billion to build semiconductor plants. That bill enjoyed extensive support from Republicans, even from legislators usually suspicious of government intervention in the market. Conservative Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a sponsor of the bill, explained the logic behind their new thinking: “The free market doesn’t have any incentive to protect national security.”

The stink of old think lingers, however, so the embrace of industrial policy is facilitated by calling it “innovation” instead. And there is no greater metaphor for innovation than the original moonshot program, launched by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 with the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Barack Obama showed the enduring power of the metaphor in 2016 when he launched the “cancer moonshot.” Google calls the laboratory where “we create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems” the “Moonshot factory.”

Japan has embraced the idea with enthusiasm. That should be no surprise. Japan has fewer qualms than the U.S. about such efforts; Tokyo pioneered the model of public-private cooperation that yielded Asia’s economic success.

In 2019, the Japanese government launched the Moonshot Research and Development Program, which “aims to create disruptive innovations from Japan and promotes challenging R&D based on revolutionary concepts that are not simply the extension of existing technologies, i.e. moonshots.” It’s guided by two principles: “Set ambitious goals and concepts to attract people for social issues that are difficult to tackle but will have profound impact once resolved,” and “aim to achieve the Moonshot Goals by bringing together wisdom from all over the world under the direction of top researchers.”

It has a budget of ¥100 billion to spend in pursuit of seven goals: overcoming limits of body, brain, space and time; ultraearly disease prediction and intervention; coexistence with AI and robots; create a fault tolerant universal quantum computer; realize sustainable resource circulation to stabilize the global environment by 2050; sustainable global food supplies by 2050; overcome major diseases by 2040 and allow for a full productive life to the age of 100. As always, the program’s success will depend on the degree to which it permits and pursues the “disruptive innovation” that is in its charter.

The U.S. is contemplating its own foray into this area with the Endless Frontier Act, currently under consideration in Congress, which will provide $110 billion over five years to support tech start-ups and work in artificial intelligence, robotics and other critical and emerging technologies. In London, the British government has decided to stand up its version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is famous for having seeded so many of those Silicon Valley successes. (A budget of just £800 million will constrain its potential, even if it gets the operational mechanics right.)

Perhaps the most vocal evangelist for the transformative capacity of the moonshot is economist Mariana Mazzucato. She forcefully rejects the conventional wisdom about industrial policy and believes instead that a “challenge-driven, mission-oriented” policy can deliver results.

Success is possible when energies are directed toward policies tackling grand challenges that are broad enough to engage the public, enable concrete missions, attract cross-sectoral investment, and are focused enough to involve industry and achieve measurable success. The goal is to “stimulate the development of a range of different solutions to achieve the objective, i.e. missions guide entrepreneurial self-discovery.”

She identifies five principles to guide those efforts: Be bold and address societal values; have concrete targets so you know when you get there; involve research and innovation that demands technological readiness over a limited time frame; be cross-sectoral, cross disciplinary, a cross-actor; and involve multiple competing solutions and bottom-up experimentation.

That sounds intuitive — but it is easier said than done. Most basically, there has to be agreement on the challenge. Some U.S. politicians who now back such policies were once their most ferocious opponents; they mercilessly attacked the Obama administration for supporting a failed solar energy company, Solyndra, when it promoted development of renewable energy supplies.

Yet mistakes are an inevitable part of any such initiative and must be tolerated. But in the absence of a challenge or mission that most members of society accept, failure will instead be an opportunity to score political points.

Solving moonshot problems obliges us to acknowledge another tough truth: Existential crises demand cooperative solutions, and those partners may include countries we otherwise see as adversaries. Yet too often, it is the adversarial relationship that takes precedence in our calculations. We mobilize to combat a problem with concrete form and substance; we’re not so adept with inchoate threats. To put it crudely, it’s easier for Washington and Beijing to see each other as a challenge than for them to view climate change as a shared concern. That reorientation in thinking may be the biggest moonshot of all.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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