An article in The New York Review of Books a few months ago challenged the long-standing myth that governments do more harm than good when it comes to spurring the types of innovation that produce economic growth. 

The article by Jeffrey Madrick was titled “Innovation: The Government Was Crucial After All.” It contended that the private sector today does very little basic research, focusing instead on commercial developments for research already done by governmental entities. 

He noted that Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc. was one example cited in Mariana Mazzucato’s new book, “The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.” Most of the major breakthroughs employed by Apple came from government research projects, according to Mazzucato. 

The magazine article got me thinking about the many innovative ideas that have come out of Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. 

The Iowa State University Research Foundation became a leader in patent collecting after realizing that it had failed to capitalize on the invention of the first digital computer by John Atanasoff in 1942. Sales of products containing ISU patented technologies totaled more than $3.2 billion during the five years that ended in 2012, according to Lisa Lorenzen, executive director of the ISU Research Foundation. 

“Over the past five fiscal years, we have shared more than $30 million in royalties and licensing fees with ISU colleges, inventors and other parties,” she added.

Many ISU patents are agriculture related: 
• A 1937 patent for making blue cheese that was awarded to microbiologists Clarence and Bernard Hammer. More than 70 years later, their process is still the industry standard.
• Horticulture professor Nick Christians holds several patents involving the use of corn gluten meal as a popular organic herbicide for controlling crab grass and other annual weeds. 
• The nation’s most popular watermelon, the Crimson Sweet, was developed by another ISU horticulture professor, Charles V. Hall. 

The reach of ISU scientists extends far beyond agriculture, though. The most lucrative patent ever awarded to an ISU scientist was in 1996 for a lead-free solder developed by Iver Anderson, an adjunct professor of materials science and engineering and senior metallurgist at the Ames Laboratory. Anderson’s breakthrough came at a crucial time, when the growing electronics industry needed to reduce the amount of lead pollution in waste. Today, 70 percent of the world’s electronics contain Anderson’s lead-free solder, Lorenzen said. 

She won’t disclose the total royalties earned by lead-free solder but said it now tops the $36 million of income from the fax algorithm created by David Nicholas, an ISU electrical engineering graduate student in 1973. His creation allowed fax machines to compress data for accurate transmission, greatly expanding the use of those devices.

My favorite ISU invention involves Terfenol-D, a super-metal that expands and contracts on demand. It was originally created by the Navy in the 1960s to improve the “ping” in underwater sonar. The government decided to manufacture it at the Ames Lab, and today a private Ames company, Etrema Products Inc., holds several related patents. Terfenol-D has nearly limitless applications in manufacturing, but it has been slow to gain acceptance because it is a truly destructive technology that requires not only retooling, but also rethinking and reconfiguring of many current processes.

The ISU efforts involve research that private companies can’t afford to do. But Madrick’s magazine article notes that foreign governments, notably China, are stepping up at a time when U.S. research funds are at a 40-year low in terms of percentage of the gross domestic product.

If we are not careful, Madrick warned, “China’s large investments in basic research will produce innovation that leaves the U.S. behind.”