• WisPolitics
2/17/2009

Federal stimulus bill, for all its flaws, plays to Wisconsin’s tech strengths

By Tom Still

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

MADISON – Parts of the federal economic stimulus bill resemble a dog-eared Democratic Party wish list, rescued from a dusty “Great Society” desk drawer. But other portions of the $790-billion bill might actually accomplish what President Obama intended – which is to create jobs relatively quickly while laying a lasting foundation for business innovation and efficiency.

Obama’s Inaugural Day promise to “restore science to its rightful place” is reflected in key provisions of the bill, which targets about $60 billion for initiatives to spur research and development or encourage widespread adoption of existing health-care, energy or telecommunications technologies. Some highlights:

The bill contains $21.5 billion in federal research and development funding, according to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That will reverse a decline in federal R&D spending that began in 2003.

That money will follow tried-and-true paths such as the National Institutes of Health ($10.4 billion), the National Science Foundation ($3 billion), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science ($1.6 billion) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology ($600 million).

Much of this money will be spent through competitive, merit-based grants to major universities – a federal spending category where Wisconsin performs well, thanks in large part to the science and engineering expertise of UW-Madison. Every $1 million spent on academic R&D translates to 36 direct or indirect jobs in Wisconsin, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures cited in a recent Wisconsin Technology Council report.

The bill will spend $19 billion to modernize health information technology, or “electronic health records.” The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation predicts 30 jobs for every $1 million in spending in this category, which will jumpstart use of health IT in doctors’ offices, hospitals and other health-care facilities. Because electronic health records reduce errors and cut waste, this investment will help to control health-care costs and improve the quality of care. Wisconsin has two private-sector leaders in this field: Epic Systems in Verona and the Marshfield Clinic in central Wisconsin.

The stimulus bill would spend $7.2 billion on broadband, mostly in rural America. Broadband is a catch-all phrase for high-speed transmission mediums that have the capacity to transmit data, voice and video over long distances simultaneously. Higher broadband penetration allows small businesses, which account for 60 percent of new jobs in America, to expand to new online markets. It creates more businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It helps rural communities attract businesses that otherwise might only flourish in urban settings. Telecom companies say they can’t afford to install broadband in many areas; targeted federal investment (guided by individual states) will help.

The bill will spend $11 billion to deploy “smart-grid” technologies that would modernize the nation’s electric transmission grid. Essentially, a smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology to save energy and cost. Smart grids may also be far more reliable, as real-time information allows grid operators to respond quickly to man-made or natural disasters by isolating affected areas and redirecting power flows around damaged facilities.

Wisconsin transmission and utility companies have begun to invest in smart grid development. For example, Xcel Energy – which serves parts of western Wisconsin – has one of the nation’s most advanced projects in Boulder, Colo.

The stimulus bill is suspect in the eyes of many Americans who believe it won’t create jobs but merely pass on debt to the next generation. Given the history of some government programs, those fears are not unwarranted.

That’s why scientists, engineers and technologists entrusted with public money through this bill must do their best to ensure that their portion of the spending – less than 10 percent of the total – is quickly and wisely put to work. America’s R&D community has complained for years about being left out in the cold. This is a chance to perform.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.
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