Economists mark the mid-1970s as a point where “deindustrialization” sent American manufacturing offshore and focused our collective attention, talents, and capital on the financial markets.
In few cities has this process been more evident than in Chicago. Our own economic character changed in 1980 after Wisconsin Steel closed its South Side manufacturing plant, setting in motion several decades of manufacturing plant closings. As manufacturing left the South and West sides, Chicago embraced an economy built on services: lawyers, accountants, consultants, and money managers. “Business services” is now the top employment sector in Chicago, according to the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
By their nature, these jobs consolidate in the Loop and often exclude manufacturing neighborhoods.
As we begin rebuilding after COVID-19, with a solemn mandate to include Black workers in future prosperity, let’s reindustrialize Chicago with a laser focus on new leading industries. And let’s do so with our own localized laboratory-to-product value chain, beginning at places like Argonne National Laboratory.
Each year R&D World magazine issues its “R&D 100 Awards,” honoring the 100 most promising advances in science during the previous year. The awards, which were given last fall in San Francisco, are often called the “Oscars for innovation” by the research and development community.
So it should be interest to Chicago’s economic development leaders and public officials that in 2019 Argonne was listed as the primary investigator or a contributing entity for nine of these awards, putting it alongside MIT among the most frequent honorees. That would put Chicago at the physical nexus point of as much innovation as any city in America.
Argonne regularly produces inventions in the physical sciences, including battery technologies, that can and should be prototyped here in Chicago.
Let’s train our sights on getting federal research dollars to fund research at Argonne and other research labs in our region. Recall Alan Dixon, then the Illinois Secretary of State, stoking resentment in an advertisement for his 1980 run for the Senate that Illinois was sending tax dollars to Washington to subsidize other states: “Fifth in population. Fiftieth in what we get back. Are they kidding?”
No, and they’re still not. Forty years after Dixon won his race for the Senate, Illinois still sits at the bottom – 45th these days – in getting our money back from Washington.
If federal support for R&D continues to go to Massachusetts (which receives about 40 percent more federal funding for R&D than Illinois) and California (receives more than four times the amount as Illinois), they’re the ones who will capitalize.
The federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research program provides more than $3 billion in cash grants to small businesses and startups that are commercializing research. Many of these grants provide bridge financing for high-risk technologies that the private venture market is unwilling to support.
Few of these grants go to Illinois; we rank 16th in receiving SBIR grants. Lots of these grants go to California and Massachusetts. The latter has received more than seven times the number of SBIR grants as Illinois has received since the program was launched in 1983.
Let’s understand the SBIR program as a critical metric of our success in technology. When Illinois small businesses receive a SBIR grant, we should invest in their success. Currently at least 13 states provide matching funds for SBIR awardees. Springfield lawmakers have not passed a proposal to make Illinois the 14th state to provide an SBIR match.
An SBIR match could be paired with the requirement that physical products be prototyped and built within the State of Illinois and not offshore.
We need everyone committed to supporting Chicago’s research community and working collaboratively to help build new technologies here. R&D can lay the foundation for future growth. Community leaders, city procurement officials, federal lawmakers, and researchers should all be working together as we emerge from COVID-19.
The recent announcement that the University of Illinois will move forward with a 62-acre research park in the South Loop should mark the beginning of a city-wide commitment to support growth through applied research. Public officials should view the development of science as a critical organizing principle to reassert Chicago’s economic power at a moment that calls for economic leadership like no other in our city’s history.
Thomas Day is a policy consultant and an adjunct lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy.