The massive mobilization reflects the size of the prize. There’s more than grant money at stake. Winning a sizable share of funding would help Illinois establish itself as a center for cutting-edge research in new technologies that will generate wealth and jobs for decades to come.
Illinois should be a strong contender in many emerging industries. We outclass other regions in many ways, from our top-flight research institutions, to our diversified industrial and commercial base, to our highly skilled workforce and our national laboratories pushing the frontiers of knowledge in critical technologies such as quantum computing and energy storage.
What we lack is a track record of pulling together all of these strengths in a way that fully capitalizes on everything Illinois can do. Too often, local organizations and institutions pursue their own agendas in an uncoordinated, sometimes internally competitive way.
Lost in the clutter of individual bids is the full picture of Illinois’ capabilities. Also lost have been some big opportunities for private- and public-sector investments. Semiconductor manufacturers are spending billions of dollars on new chip plants in Arizona, New York and Ohio, but not Illinois. Similarly, a series of electric vehicle battery plants bypassed our state in recent years. Illinois also lost out on federal economic development grants of $1 billion apiece that were awarded to 21 states last year under the American Rescue Plan.
Illinois must do better if it hopes to prosper and grow in coming generations. In many ways, we’re still operating with a 20th-century economy long after other states made the turn into the 21st. The next decade will be critical as new industries put down roots in regions around the country, much as manufacturers and railroads clustered in Chicago more than 100 years ago.
And federal research funding over the next few years will play a big role in determining where 21st-century industries gather. For example, the Commerce Department has announced it will use CHIPS Act money to seed at least two advanced semiconductor manufacturing clusters by 2030. It’s safe to say Illinois isn’t a front-runner at this point.
Fortunately, recent experience shows that a little regional coordination can go a long way. Last month, traditional rivals U of C, Northwestern and U of I joined forces to bring a $250 million Chan Zuckerberg Biohub research facility to Illinois. By combining their respective strengths in molecular engineering, nanotechnology and genomics, the trio bested 57 rivals for the center, which will put Illinois at the forefront of biomedical technology.
In another encouraging sign, local universities and energy companies have teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory and others to compete for a $7 billion U.S. Department of Energy program that aims to create six to 10 hydrogen energy research centers around the country. A win would position Illinois to lead development of an important new clean energy source.
That’s the kind of collaboration Illinois needs to claim a meaningful share of the massive funding stream rolling out of Washington, D.C. As my colleague John Pletz reported, federal agencies want comprehensive, regionally focused proposals demonstrating a full package of scientific and commercial capabilities, not an avalanche of one-off applications.
Illinois has the depth and breadth to fare well in such a competition, provided we present a united front. Sadly, previous efforts to marshal our resources in economic development have fizzled as participants put their individual interests ahead of the common good.
Reversing that pattern will take strong leadership from Pritzker in his role as chairman of Innovate Illinois, as well as the coalition’s vice chairs: UL Solutions CEO Jennifer Scanlon and U of I Chancellor Robert Jones. It also will require a lasting commitment from all the coalition’s members to work together for the good of Illinois.
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April 3, 2023 at 07:34AM