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Rust & Rock: Investment in Human Capital Needed to Invigorate Economic Development

Rust belt cities and regions across the U.S. have committed to reinventing themselves along a greener, more knowledge-intensive economic future path. It's a trend, in fact, that is not limited to the U.S. Witness surging interest, and new developments, in all things alternative energy around the industrialized world, but especially in China.

Underlying this wave of revitalization are new and emerging materials, design innovations, and whole new technologies. Fortunately for the U.S., public and private universities with advanced research centers, as well as major corporations, are turning these innovations into significant economic development initiatives. It will be the smartest, most nimble regions that survive and prosper in the future. The exodus from the rust belts has been significant. Going forward, the emphasis will be on sustainability - and smarts.lots of them.

Investment Is Vital
Emerging knowledge-based economies everywhere need a diverse, highly educated, multitalented work force. They also need hard investment dollars. In that regard, they resemble the mother of all knowledge-based economies, Silicon Valley.

Finding, attracting, and keeping a qualified, talented work force, coupled with enlightened investment, are vital ingredients for success in today's highly competitive marketplace. Severe challenges notwithstanding, increasing numbers of U.S. - and global - regions are undergoing significant transformation today, widely embracing all manner of innovation, and along the way creating new networks or "ecosystems" of regional tech hubs and development centers.

Here's the rub: how do communities support such transformation and sustain this type of growth in America? The answer is through new investment. The capital is there. The real question is do they have the human capital? Are they investing in schools, classrooms, teachers, and the young people of America?

A National Mandate
Building a sustainable future will require all of the brains the nation can muster. It will also require putting a new face on "smart" and elevating tech's stature to one of national pride.

No less an authority than Vincent Cerf, recognized as one of "the fathers of the Internet," recently waxed lyrically on this very subject on the op ed pages of The Wall Street Journal.

"Young people should understand and experience the thrill of science and discovery. We need to help them do real science, not just read about it, through collaborative tools that help mentors and students to interact through programs such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Children learn best by seeing and doing, not by memorizing," he said.

Cerf continued, "It's also important to reintroduce to the American culture a higher regard for engineers and scientists. The winners of our National Medals of Science and Technology deserve more public attention. Our successful scientists and engineers should be made more visible and their voices heard more often. Most important, however, is the need to refresh and invigorate interest in and regard for science and engineering in our youth."

The venerable Vincent Cerf has a further prescription: "School and extracurricular opportunities for young people to work with experienced scientists and engineers should be expanded. Successful examples include the FIRST robotics program established by Dean Kamen (entrepreneur and inventor of the Segway PT), Google's recently launched global Science Fair, and the 50-year partnership between NASA and the National Science Teachers Association. By elevating interest in math and science, we will foster the innovation and ingenuity that will move this nation forward into a better future."

Simply put, communities cannot refresh and invigorate much-needed regional economic development unless they "refresh and invigorate [youth's] interest in and regard for science and engineering." Cerf believes "a higher regard for engineers and scientists" is a good start, but elevating these individuals to rock-star status would be even better.

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