Op Ed

State’s Future Depends on Knowledge Economy

Two new studies show why state needs to support its universities.

By - Dec 27th, 2019 11:50 am
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Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. Photo by Rosina Peixoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. Photo by Rosina Peixoto (Own work) (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Two very different top 10 lists published in the last week are seemingly unrelated, but both tell basically the same story. The lists came from respected research institutions and, while they weren’t on the same topic, the underlying message was consistent and striking — but perhaps not surprising. Knowledge-based, scientifically related jobs are becoming ever more important as the generator of employment and income, and those jobs are closely tied to investment in higher education — especially research.

The first list was from a report issued by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. That study listed the top 10 cities in the U.S. for growth in innovation industries such as software, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and data processing. These jobs account for a growing share of the nation’s economy and are closely linked to research funding and an educated workforce. With one exception, all the cities on the list were part of large metropolitan areas (populations over 1 million) and were, for the most part, on the coasts. Yet there was one city included on the list that didn’t fit that pattern. Madison was ranked seventh of all American cities for gains in innovation jobs. Madison was the only smaller metropolitan area and the only one located in the nation’s heartland. The report points out that these innovation industries, with their generally well-paying jobs, usually locate in cities with a good supply of highly educated workers and research institutions.

The other top 10 list that caught my eye came from the National Science Federation, which published its annual Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey of America’s public and private universities. The good news was the University of Wisconsin-Madison was once again among the nation’s top 10 research universities, as it has been ever since the survey began in 1972. Here’s the bad news: from 1972 until 2015, UW-Madison was always in the top five. Last year, UW was sixth, and this year, in a continuation of the downward slide in the national ranking, UW came in eighth.

While it was a coincidence that these two studies happened to come out in the same week, their juxtaposition points to several important takeaways:

1. Wisconsin punches way above its weight when it comes to higher education. Wisconsin is right in the middle of the 50 states is population and wealth, yet we have one of the best universities in the country — largely because we have historically invested in higher education. That investment pays off big. It’s no accident that a Wisconsin city was on the list of prosperous high-tech towns. UW–Madison-related startup companies support nearly 25,000 jobs and contribute $2.3 billion to the state economy.

2. Wisconsin’s slide compared to other universities is entirely predictable. The Walker administration weakened tenure, sharply cut funding and repeatedly demeaned the work of the university. Several professors have left the university recently (along with their research dollars) because of Walker’s approach to the university. If not reversed, this will hurt Wisconsin’s competitiveness for future innovation jobs.

3. The Brookings Institution report highlights that the benefits of the growth in the knowledge economy are unevenly distributed, and that is exacerbating geographic inequality. This has brought about widespread resentment — a resentment that has been exploited politically by Donald Trump and Scott Walker, among others.

It is in the interest of successful areas like Madison to spread the benefits of the growing knowledge economy to other parts of the state and nation. As the Brookings Institution report’s author points out, “Political support for publicly funded research will crumble unless more of the country enjoys the benefits from innovation.”

This column was originally published by the Cap Times in Madison.

Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee.

Categories: Business, Education

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