Friday, January 20, 2006

Idaho must secure a high technology future

Guest opinion by John Grossenbacher

John Grossenbacher is director of the Idaho National Laboratory and chairman of the Governor's Science & Technology Advisory Council.

I became a citizen of Idaho a little more than a year ago when the Battelle Energy Alliance was selected to lead the Idaho National Laboratory into the future. Throughout my previous career in the Navy, I had been exposed to the INL through submariners who had trained in Idaho to operate and maintain naval nuclear propulsion plants. My picture was of our nation's reactor development and demonstration laboratory set in the middle of a state defined economically by agriculture, mining, and logging.

Since becoming an Idahoan, my eyes have opened to a much bigger and more dynamic picture of science and technology in Idaho. Today, science and technology is the largest sector of Idaho's economy, employing more than 50,000 Idahoans in jobs that pay twice the private sector average.

Idaho is recognized as a center of technology innovation and a fertile environment for growing new companies. It leads the nation in the number of patents issued per capita, risk capital is more available than ever before, and the number of technology-based businesses has steadily increased.

I am honored and privileged to serve as chairman of the Governor's Science and Technology Advisory Council, a group chartered in 1999 to provide advice and leadership in securing the future health of the science and technology sector.

In this role, I appreciate that we face a number of challenges for the future. The success and vitality of this sector in recent years tempt us to complacency, but not all the news is good. Pocatello recently had a major employer in the medical equipment industry move its operation to Mexico. Compared to other states, Idaho ranks near the bottom in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a $2 billion-a-year federal program focused on spawning new technology companies. Idaho's Internet infrastructure is not sufficient to support full scientific collaboration between our universities and our national lab.

Idaho is a late starter in the race to plan and secure the future health of its technology sector. Several dozen other states have seen the need and met the challenge ahead of Idaho. The first of them started more than 25 years ago, taking on work force issues through programs involving the education community and employers, capital formation needs through tax and other incentives, SBIR performance by supporting would-be participants, and early stage company survival through financial and other assistance. Many of those states are today reaping the benefits of their collaborations and investments. The first states to move in this area were motivated by dramatic downturns in key industries. Today, Idaho has an opportunity to take the initiative without the forcing function of a major economic downturn.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has recently asked the state Legislature to provide funding for several specific initiatives to address various aspects of this challenge. Relative to most other states, the amounts requested are quite modest. It is, however, a significant start for a state just beginning.

The challenge cannot be met solely on the strength of government action. It can only be met if all parties that will reap the benefits---private, public, federal, state, and local---join hands to create the solution. In the coming months, the Governor's Science and Technology Advisory Council will be challenging organizations from around the state to step forward, become active partners in defining a path for the future, and begin moving down that path.

The rewards can be significant. A few short years ago, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, working with state government and the private sector, committed to a quantum leap in their emphasis on science and technology programs. A few months ago, Google chose Phoenix as the site of its new research and development organization on the strength of the availability of a talented, appropriately trained workforce. The initial impact was 600 new high end jobs.

It is hard to deny that we would all welcome a Google in our back yard. I invite Idaho's leadership in the private sector, government and education to engage in leading us to meet our challenges and tremendous opportunities.

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