U.S. ‘innovation hubs’ survey shows why state should pull together

The coming months will be a critical time for Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to put partisan and regional differences aside as decisions are made to seed tech innovation “hubs” in cities outside the nation’s major metros on the East and West coasts.

A failure to make the case that Wisconsin is a logical place for such a hub could miss one of the federal government’s biggest economic development initiatives since World War II and make it more difficult for the state to compete for talent and private investment dollars.

Here’s what is at stake: Policymakers and “think tanks” have made the case that the U.S. economy is not well-served by clustering most tech-based research and production in a few major cities while the rest of the country — the proverbial “heartland” — competes for smaller slices of the R&D pie.

Not only are some regions being left behind, but there are also threats to national competitiveness from emerging powers such as China that are best countered by a more diverse economic and research base. It explains why Congress has authorized bills such as the Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act and has taken steps to strengthen agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

The latest report comes from the private Economic Innovation Group, which studied how 381 U.S. metropolitan areas stack up as places where federal dollars can best be invested.

The Madison region ranked among the top 30 such metros overall and fourth within the Chicago region of the federal Economic Development Agency, with other metros being Toledo, Ohio; Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, South Bend, Indiana, and nearby parts of Michigan; and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Madison scored high among the top 30 for “potential,” which included research assets, advanced industry employment, and other weighted factors, but low on “need,” which basically boiled down to a perception the region is doing well on its own.

That may be true if viewed strictly within the borders of Dane County, but here is where Wisconsin’s 10-member congressional delegation enters the picture. This competition should consider the state as a whole.

Eleven other metros in Wisconsin were examined by the Economic Innovation Group, ranging in size from Milwaukee-Waukesha to Fond du Lac and Wausau-Weston. Based on national scores, above-average measures of potential were recorded in five of the 11 (Milwaukee, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh-Neenah, and Racine-Kenosha) and above-average measures of need were charted in four (Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, La Crosse-Onalaska, and Oshkosh-Neenah).

People can argue about which of Wisconsin’s cities have more potential or are needier in terms of a federal innovation dollars jump-start, but attracting at least one innovation “hub” would spread benefits statewide.

A competitive process is already under way that shows how those Wisconsin cities can and do work together. The NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines program has attracted at least four Wisconsin proposals that involve industry, academic centers, economic catalysts, tribal and local governments, and more from across the state. Topics include water, energy, dairy research, and sustainable agriculture. Another proposal centered around quantum computing and including partners in Illinois is also in the works.

Depending on how the process sorts itself out in Washington, D.C., Wisconsin could attract NSF dollars to any of those proposals — or none. It’s all based on merit and independent judging, with dollars appropriated nationally to make it work. If some of them don’t go to Wisconsin, they will go elsewhere.

That is where Wisconsin’s congressional delegation can help. Some members could ask: “My district isn’t scoring well so why should I vote for an appropriation that’s most likely to go to Madison?”

In part, the answer lies in the fact that supply chains in research and production reach across the state, bringing benefits to many Wisconsin communities. Also, the process thus far has helped to break down regional barriers that have hampered Wisconsin’s economy for decades.

This is not a time for parochialism or partisanship. It is, however, a time to build on Wisconsin’s reputation for research, innovation, and talent and to seize the chance to be a part of a historic economic opportunity.