Tacoma needs PhDs for tech to boom here

Ken Miller of Tacoma is an occasional op-ed contributor to The News Tribune.
Ken Miller of Tacoma is an occasional op-ed contributor to The News Tribune. News Tribune file photo, 2012

I’d like to continue the conversation that Anthony J. Forte started with his June 21 letter under the headline, “Tech sector: Tacoma must not be left behind.”

He argues that Tacoma should fight harder to rival Seattle’s bustling technology sector.

Obviously, technology isn’t just about information. There’s bio-tech, for example, as well as nano-tech. The Department of Defense looks at combat technology; Washington State University is strong in food technology.

Choosing a “tech strategy” for Tacoma/Pierce County requires sorting out the kind of tech in which we can succeed – or even lead.

We also should understand the trade-offs for new technology. The Port of Tacoma, for example, could become a hub for robotics in material handling; research dollars and new companies might follow.

But we’d pay the price in jobs lost. New tech tends to create jobs the current workforce cannot fill.

Another topic in Forte’s letter is the excellence of our universities. I don’t disagree; University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran University and University of Washington Tacoma are fine schools, complemented by several technical and community colleges and an Evergreen State College branch.

Faculty and students at these schools have innovative ideas, start businesses and contribute to the community.

But none offer doctoral-level programs. That means none host the kind of tech research that attracts graduate students, who then go off to start small tech firms.

Silicon Valley incubated at Stanford University. The Boston Technology Corridor grew out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Silicon Forest sprouted from Oregon Institute of Technology.

Without a PhD program, we won’t grow a tech sector of our own, much less become a leader.

That’s too bad. We have a promising base in clean-water technology, thanks to the Center for Urban Waters. Even there, however, the research is often closer to social science than technology: human wellbeing indicators, cultural values in decision making, and the like.

Good stuff, certainly, but not the stuff of a valuable tech sector.

Another potential base is UWT’s Masters in Cybersecurity and Leadership. Again, the emphasis isn’t on new technology; it’s on managing the technology we have, with classes such as organizational change and leadership and team dynamics.

This program may attract new students to the area, which is good. But it won’t create new technology.

Maybe the problem is the UW’s strategy, which reserves doctoral research for the Seattle campus and leaves so-called commuter campuses with more basic education.

I can’t judge that strategy; perhaps it’s best for Washington, even though other states share the PhD wealth among branch campuses.

Forte’s letter suggests that Tacoma mayoral candidates address the issue in this year’s election campaign. They could discuss inviting a new university to Tacoma, focused on PhDs in a promising technology.

On a grand scale, that’s what the City of New York has done by bringing Cornell and Technion Israel Institute of Technology to a $2 billion campus in the Big Apple. And by creating Silicon Alley, an innovation hub slated to create 40,000 jobs in the next four years.

Sure, everything’s bigger in New York, but why think small?

What could happen if we were to put a lot of chips on cybersecurity or clean water, attract a PhD program and support the small businesses that emerge?

Imagine Silicon Bay.

Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He’s served on the Board of the Tacoma Housing Authority and on the city’s 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities. He writes occasional op-eds for The News Tribune.