Leveraging Government’s Role in Science and Technology: Are we tilting at windmills?

Posted on 06. Apr, 2011 by Administrator in Economy

High-tech company promotion has been my ‘game’ since 1984. During my career as a Foreign Commercial Service officer for the U.S. Department of Commerce, I worked in over two dozen countries with some of the world’s top technologists in Europe and Asia. So when I was hired in autumn 2006 as Director of the State’s Office of Science and Technology (inside the Department of Economic Development or EDD) I felt I found a ‘home.’ Little did I know that three years and three months later my job would be eliminated by the Governor as one of 60 exempt employees for budget reasons. This is not a ‘sour grapes’ article. I had three very productive years and served my State well. My comments are a first-person account of how we in New Mexico do high-tech promotion, and what we should be doing to recruit companies and create jobs.

The politics of science and the science of politics

There hadn’t been a Director in the Science and Technology Division at the EDD for six months, so I had a lot to do. I was anxious to get going and fortunate to work hand-in-hand with the Governor’s Science Advisor, Dr. Tom Bowles, a brilliant and affable man. Tom is the Chief Scientist at LANL and ‘on-loan’ to the Governor’s Office as his Science Advisor. I think the Cabinet Secretary knew that we would re-energize the S&T portfolio together and do great things. We were both used to working in highly-charged/high expectations environments. Working for the Governor (a former DOE Secretary who understood the value of high-technology) was a great fit for us. Our first order of business was to prepare a comprehensive ‘road map’ of science & technology investments and involvement in the state. We assembled over a hundred volunteers from around the state to help us, and after nearly two years of work, we had prepared the most definitive work on Science and Technology that the state had ever seen (it can be downloaded from www.nmsciencetech.org). In 2008, I saw the interest in New Mexico as a potential high-tech investment site grow, rapidly. Part of it was due to the Governor’s run for President, but more was because of the ground-breaking research done at Sandia and Los Alamos, our White Sands Testing Facility, our three research universities and by the private sector.

Economic Development and Science: Strange bedfellows?

This brings me to Economic Development – not the activity but the EDD, the department charged with helping recruit companies to New Mexico and stimulating job growth. It didn’t take me long to realize that my Division of Science and Technology was a ‘stepchild’ at the EDD. The ‘real’ economic development work of the Department is done by the community representatives and the ‘program managers’ who manage the state’s economic development programs/incentives. My portfolio and I were not on their radar screen.

Supercomputing to the ‘rescue’?

Yes, the Governor is an ambitious individual, and the right amount of ambition can spawn some good ideas. One of those is a initiative I worked on called the New Mexico Computing Applications Center (the ‘Center’ or NMCAC). We needed a bigger and better ‘lure’ to recruit companies here, so we chose the best high-tech ‘tool’ we could find – a kind of Swiss Army Knife of high-tech tools – a supercomputer. Not only would it satisfy our own in-state needs for high performance computing, but also earn money from selling comprehensive services to non-New Mexican companies in the digital imaging business for example. The model is a sound one, but it requires a commitment from the state to keep it going through its start-up phase. This was a non-traditional economic development project, one the EDD could not have taken it on. That’s not the EDD’s fault; it was never really set up to support S&T, much like other activities (the State Film Office is another). Because it is so focused on its core job of getting on-the-ground economic development successes, ‘complex’ divisions like S&T was basically left to fend for itself without a single budget increase in the three years I was there.

The Governor’s Office is not the absolute best or right place for these efforts either. Science-based government-supported economic development is a tough nut to crack. Decisions must be based on proven science and sound business projections. There are very few tangible near-term outcomes. It’s the consummate long-term investment, but it’s one we MUST make if we are to compete and thrive in the high-tech marketplace. State government is best suited to take the lead on certain S&T projects, however. One of those is the ‘Green Grid.’

The NMGGI (New Mexico Green Grid Initiative) was formed as a State initiative in part to take advantage of ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds to build out a new array of alternative energy technologies in the State and run them in micro-grids. The principal technology was solar, and it was thought that the State could be a prime contender for a Dept. of Energy grant. We spent the better part of a year working to develop a comprehensive grant proposal and submitted it on August 26th. We all had great hopes for a win. Unfortunately, we were not selected for a grant, but neither was any other southwestern state! Strange that the two best places for modeling solar technology (Arizona and New Mexico) were left out. All is not fair in love and science nor in politics, I suspect. I mention the NMGGI as a prime example as how the State of New Mexico has aggressively sought opportunities to advance our high-tech companies and technologies. We must continue the fight, but we must learn to fight, smarter.

The Way Forward

Last summer, the Legislature approved a bill that would enable the establishment of a ‘Research Application Center.’ The RAC, which would be a clearing house and ‘home to technology’ promotion for the State, is our best hope to promote the State’s high-tech capabilities and merge the various state government initiatives into one location, centralizing our resources and saving the taxpayers money in the bargain. (Many states have gone this route and have enjoyed considerable success – see ‘Technology 21′, the State’s Science and Technology Plan available on www.nmsciencetech.org). I worry that the current legislative session will not fund the RAC and thereby deal a body blow to our state’s high-tech ambitions. Without an on-going State commitment to pursuing new inward high-tech investment we will not grow fast enough. Our home-grown technology companies cannot provide our economy with enough jobs. To attract newcomer high-tech companies we must work more closely with educational institutions to insure that the right commercial curricula is developed to educate those new high-tech workers. We will not achieve our goals to create a ‘critical mass’ of specialized technologies on our own without those jobs and those out-of-state companies. We need them to help us diversify our economic base away from a dependency on government jobs. We must act now.

We must realize that true high-tech economic growth can only come from a strong public/private partnership where each side shoulders its own burden of the cost. We should resist the impulse to cut funds for the State’s efforts in this area. Ask any successful company what they do when sales are down. They don’t fire the salesmen or cut their budgets.

Stephan Helgesen is the Former Director of the State’s Office of Science and Technology and a retired Foreign Service Officer who worked in 24 countries. He is Honorary German Consul and CEO of his own high-tech consulting company, 2nd Opinion Marketing and Communications.


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