A plea for S&T

Ohio had better get going on investing in science and technology infrastructure, or it stands to fall further and further behind its counterparts in economic development, a former top state official recently told software executives in Cleveland.

Dr. Glen Browning delivered his broadside to members of the Northeast Ohio Software Association (NEOSA), which under energetic executive director Jim Cookinham has become perhaps the leading forum for issues related to the new regional economy.

The former Voinovich adviser, Dr. Brown, who served as the state’s science and technology adviser for two years before recently returning home to Chagrin Falls, was unusually frank for a political appointee. He complained that in his two years in the job, he encountered only two Ohio legislators “who you could talk to about science and technology. The rest, you had to talk to them about economic development.” As for the public, he said, “the public in general likes science and technology, but they don’t know what it is.”

On an ancient overhead projector — which had the unfortunate effect of highlighting his message about the need for cutting-edge technology programs — he listed the weaknesses of the present management of state science and tech programs:

  • Too little programatic interaction between state departments.
  • Weak to nonexistent advocacy for science and technology to both the public and state legislators.
  • An unwieldy state science and tech council. “It’s too big, in my opinion. It’s got about 25 people. In the two years I was in Columbus, they had eight meetings and three quorums.” To make matters worse, he added, “it had no representatives from small business or venture capitalists. They are all critical to what we’re trying to do with science and tech.”
  • No plan which ties the various activities into a coherent whole.

He said the lack of budget earmarked for the office was a major stumbling block. “When I first went down to Columbus to be science and technology adviser, I said, ‘OK, how much money do I have?’ I found out it was none. Well, when you say you’re an adviser but you have no money, people don’t want to talk to you. I was finally able to talk them into $1 million in the first biennial [budget] and $2 million in the second, to leverage federal funding.”

He called upon the new governor, Bob Taft, to establish a “technology action fund” of between $5 and 10 million.

Still, he concluded on a gloomy note. While Gov. Taft has proposed an Edison Information Technology Center, he said the reality is that there will be enormous political pressure to invest whatever surplus state funds are available in the K-12 education budget.

Instead, he proposed raiding the state’s infamous “rainy day fund,” a favorite stockpile of former Gov. Voinovich, which now bulges with around $1 billion. “If we take 10 percent of that fund and invest it in science and tech, we might push off that rainy day for a long time.”