Economic Cushions, Cautions

Last summer, the National Governors Association issued a report describing how states can use research-and-development capabilities to grow their economies. This month, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan endorsed the idea. Now some states are following through - looking ahead and strengthening university research and development budgets in hopes of softening the blow of an economic slowdown.

California, for example, has approved $300 million to form three university-connected institutes for science and innovation. It also raised more than $700 million from the private sector. One center will concentrate on the wireless Internet, another on nanotechnology (building incredibly small structures, one atom at a time), and another on finding ways to combine various scientific disciplines to fight disease.

But governors working to create these kinds of economic cushions need to exercise some caution in creating high-tech R&D parks. A lot of money can simply wind up in corporate pockets. Technology companies need access to the latest research, and they're more than happy to save some money by relying on university-based, state-funded tech centers for some of the work.

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This symbiotic relationship between the public and private sectors needs to be kept open and above- board. And taxpayer dollars should not subsidize corporate research and development without any real guarantee that new local jobs will be created. States will need to figure out strong accountability measures.

Regional differences between states also play a part in determining the value of high-tech parks. Ultimately, the Boston area lost out to Silicon Valley largely because of the former's culture of corporate secrecy. Increased sharing of ideas among companies in California helped advance that state's position.

Moreover, states should put money where the challenge of high-tech economic development begins - into scholarships that encourage more graduates in math, science, and engineering. Down the line, that will produce more grad students, more professors, more knowledge, and more economic activity.

This kind of long-term investment will help the high-tech fueled economic transformation maintain its momentum.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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