By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2018, The Oklahoman
I realize I am preaching to choir on this one, but just let me say that the Heartland of the United States is very different from the Coasts.
That’s what makes the information in the State of the Heartland: Factbook 2018 so relevant to Oklahoma and so actionable. This report (factbook.theheartlandsummit.org) published last month, was coproduced by the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) and Brookings Institute.
WFF defines the “Heartland” as 19 center-of-country states that stretch over a million square miles from the Canadian border and the Great Lakes down through Alabama and Louisiana to the Gulf. There is no Texas, no Intermountain West, and no state east of Ohio. The study calls the Heartland “a country within a country.”
The report presents a vision for getting leaders and residents of these 19 states “on the same page about the region’s current condition and its trajectory.”
As defined, the Heartland’s 19-state economy sits in size between Japan (No. 3) and Germany (No. 4) in the world. Only the U.S. and China are larger.
Benchmarking the trifecta of successful economic development — growth, prosperity, and inclusion — all 19 states have added jobs and posted increases in the average wage. In Oklahoma, under some measures we excel. For example, Oklahoma, an expected performer in traditional energy sectors, is a Heartland (and U.S.) leader in renewable energy with 17 percent annual growth.
However, amid the good news, the Heartland Factbook tees up a major caveat that doesn’t bode well for Oklahoma’s future competitiveness.
From young workers with bachelor’s degrees to technology spinouts and venture capital, Oklahoma is struggling to build the “human capital and technology capacity” that we need to compete and prosper in an innovation driven economy.
When it comes to two key drivers of high-quality job creation and venture capital investment — research and development (R&D) funding, and technology transfer from universities — Oklahoma ranks at the bottom of the Heartland list. We are lagging in both public and private sector investment in R&D and our universities are not keeping up with universities in other states in producing research that can be taken to market (the definition of “technology transfer.”)
OCAST (Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology), the source of state R&D funding, over the last three years was able to fund only 37 percent of the rigorously vetted and qualified research applications it received due to funding constraints. Those unfunded opportunities represent (at OCAST historical rates of return) unrealized potential economic impact of $848 million.
There’s a hard message in the data for Oklahoma. As a state, if we want to continue to grow and diversify our economy that we’ve worked so hard over the last 20+ years to develop, we must stand tall and budget differently. Investment in research leads to increased venture capital investment which leads to more high paying jobs in advanced technology industries.
This is not a time to pull back. We can’t afford it.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at [email protected].