Alabama blue chipper lost to neighboring state

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 30, 2004

Alabama lost a blue chipper to Georgia a week or so ago, and it caused barely a ripple. There was a story on the second page of the Birmingham News; I don’t know whether any of the state’s other papers noticed at all.

It wasn’t a football player that Georgia lured away. That would have generated a lot of ink and air time.

It was a scientist.

In the grand scheme of things, though, his departure probably has a greater impact on Alabama’s future than does a decision made by a 17- or 18-year-old athlete.

Dr. Lin Mei, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will move to the Medical College of Georgia along with a team of researchers that includes his wife, Dr. Wen-Cheng Xiong.

Mei was attracted to our neighboring state by the Georgia Research Alliance, a consortium of business, government and higher education that has figured out that brain power is the key to the economy of the future.

Mei is the third scientific researcher the alliance has attracted away from Alabama.

Among other things, the alliance is investing $l.5 million in an endowed professorship for Mei and $1 million for a new laboratory.

Investment is the right word. Mei will take with him grants that bring in more than $1 million a year. Mei told the Birmingham News that Georgia probably will recoup its investment in him in three years.

In Alabama, we are basking in the glory of becoming a center of automotive production. There is no doubt this is something to be pleased about. Automobile manufacturers and their suppliers that are locating in the state are providing jobs that we badly need.

But we should work to make the automotive industry only a part of our economic mix. For years we were dependent on the textile industry, which came South because of cheap labor and low taxes. Now the textile industry has found even cheaper places to produce goods. Somewhere down the road, the automotive industry could follow that pattern.

It is a good bet that the most vibrant industries of the future haven’t even been invented yet. They’re being born in test tubes and computers in laboratories at research universities around the country.

In 1990, a group of Georgia’s leaders saw that business, research universities and state government could join together to build an economy fueled by innovative university research.

The key to the alliance’s plan is to attract the world’s pre-eminent scientists to the state’s universities to lead research and development programs in areas with the most potential to create new high-tech jobs. To date, the alliance says, more than 40 eminent scholars, such as Dr. Mei, have been recruited.

As they saw it, the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars would compete successfully for a bigger share of research funds, attract other talented faculty and graduate students to Georgia, and foster new companies and create new relationships with industry to commercialize technologies developed through their research.

The investment in brainpower would generate more economic opportunities for Georgia’s citizens. So far, it seems to be working. The alliance says that the $375 million it has invested in people, laboratories and equipment has brought in nearly $2 billion in new federal and private funds to the state’s economy.

More than 100 high-value technology companies have spun out of university research, according to the alliance, and Georgia is now ninth in the nation in biotech companies, increasing the number by nearly 65 percent in just seven years.

In his book Head to Head, Dr. Lester Thurow, a Montana native who has since 1968 a professor of management and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that the key industries of the next few decades are all brain power industries.

“Each could be located anywhere on the face of the globe. Where they will be located depends upon who can organize the brain power to capture them. In the century ahead, comparative advantage will be man-made.”

There are some smart people doing important work at our research universities in Alabama. But we have never made attracting brainpower a top priority.

As Thurow has pointed out, brains can work anywhere. Even in Alabama.

I wonder whether we have the imagination to go after them.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at williambrown1@charter.net

(c)2004 William B. Brown