Who's Gonna Compete

The pioneers of the Great Lakes' emerging knowledge economy gathered in the nation's capitol today to highlight big, bright, and reasoned ideas about how government can take a more active role in the region's economic, environmental, and social revival.

But Baiju Shah, the young and polished president of BioEnterprise, a Cleveland-based firm that recruits, incubates, and commercializes biotech businesses, was joltingly clear in his assessment of Washington's ability to help bolster the region's prosperity in these early stages of the 21st century.

"The fundamental issue is really the federal legislature's lack of understanding of what it takes to create competitiveness and innovation throughout America," Mr. Shah said. "[The challenge is] to go beyond even early understanding of what the rhetoric is to really thinking about tangible actions."

In other words, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon, Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse President John Manzetti, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and all the other new economy early birds the Brookings Institution is organizing can talk until they're blue in the face about deepening investment in higher education, urban revitalization, and Great Lakes restoration.

But if national leaders don't recognize these constantly overlooked and underfunded issues as the cornerstones of any serious agenda to promote modern prosperity in America's Rust Belt and, by extension, the nation as a whole, action will continue to be slow, under scale, and safe to the point of inconsequential. What's more, Mr. Shah is struggling to find any real leadership on the horizon.

"I'm struck that, as we gear up for the 2008 presidential campaign, there's hardly a single major candidate that is talking about the issue of competitiveness and innovation," he said.

Mr. Shah's comments came in a half-day seminar sponsored by the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, a project of the Brookings Institution. The seminar, the first in a series leading up to the 2008 presidential election, aims to indentify federal policy reforms that will boost economic development in one of the more important, but troubled, regions in the United States of America. More on that later. The plane home is boarding.