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Where R&D Goes to School

Research universities are on the leading edge of a new paradigm for economic development.

UAH engineering students learn while manufacturing in the co-op program with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Alabama, the company’s engine plant in Huntsville.

 

A 2010 study conducted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York showed a strong link between higher education and economic development.

While that not-so-surprising fact likely fell into the category of “tell me something I don’t know,” it documented a new trend in workforce development that is changing a decades-long economic development paradigm.

The report found research universities to be the key players in economic development, with especially strong links to advanced workforce development, business and technological consulting, and creating an environment for corporate startups. The report revealed a new model for economic growth: one modeled more on education, research and innovation and less on traditional incentive programs.

It’s worked for Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and the I-93 corridor north of Boston. Technologically focused higher education that produces a talented workforce, supported by enlightened local governments and chambers of commerce, makes a potent mix for economic development.

The key issue, of course, is workforce development. Today’s technology companies, whose competitive advantages rely heavily on technological innovation, must be fed and their fuel is educated people.

The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama promotes the assets of eight research universities in Alabama: Auburn University, Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Here in Huntsville, the partnership between UAH and a growing innovation-oriented economy has produced both supply and demand for highly educated workers.

One must wonder which really comes first. A community wants to bring in the industry, but at the same time you have to have the workforce needed to support that industry.

Since the 1960s, Huntsville has realized that the key to bringing high quality jobs is a high integrity workforce of the smartest and most productive people possible.

Thousands of graduates from the University of Alabama in Huntsville end up at federal agencies and government contractors on Redstone Arsenal and technology-rich companies that populate Cummings Research Park. Several have made it to the top of leading CRP companies. These include UAH graduates Marc Bendickson, chairman of the board of Dynetics; Richard Amos, president of Colsa Corp.; Steven Hill, president of AEgis Research; Ashok Singhal president of CFD Research, and Gurmej Sandhu, founder and chairman of Sigmatech.

A dynamic technological economy fosters changing educational needs. Prospects that need a specific workforce skill set are able to work with UAH to modify or add educational programs designed to fill the gap.

This could involve an entirely new degree program. Current examples are modeling & simulation, gaming and entertainment arts, varying degree levels in cybersecurity, a Ph.D in biotechnology and specialized MBA programs focused on logistics and supply chain management.

Beyond Advanced Workforce Development

The advanced workforce development and research benefits are only the beginning of the story. Research universities bring other benefits designed to grease the wheels of economic development and growth.

One of these is the ability to function as a teaming partner, or a “force multiplier,” on major proposals for grants and government contracts requiring strong research credentials. UAH offers the ability to be a teaming partner and strengthen a proposal and also to offer facilities many of these companies can’t otherwise afford. Those facilities, as well as UAH talent and expertise, can be a real plus in a proposal effort.

Research can be a very expensive effort and therefore an activity not many companies can cost justify. This is one of the advantages for the Huntsville community in having a research university. UAH is able to develop a research program in an extremely focused, niche area that doesn’t normally exist in industry. Corporations have to be more “jack of all trades” and are not able to develop a niche expertise. But as a UAH faculty member, one can drill down into a very specific area and become a world-class expert in that area. So, there are occasions when that world-class expertise in a very specific area becomes the crucial factor in a proposal.

Research universities find themselves more often at the forefront of local and state economic development efforts. Alabama, like other states, continues to offer traditional incentives like tax breaks and infrastructure development, but the state’s major research universities offer that one “lead incentive” of knowledge that more businesses find they must have.

And this factor appears to become even more prevalent in economic development successes in the greater Huntsville area lately. Recent moves by manufacturing companies in north Alabama also include a research and development component alongside the manufacturing capabilities. Remington moved its R&D center from Kentucky to Huntsville, and Polaris has an R&D building planned on its campus. Toyota-Mazda also has an R&D center planned between the two manufacturing buildings at its mega-plant in Limestone County.

This trend falls in line with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute report: “In the economy of the future, the businesses that will have staying power and growth potential will be those most dependent on knowledge — on research, new ideas, new technologies and upgraded knowledge for their workers.”

Ray Garner is chief of staff to the president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Robert Altenkirch.

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