Sense and Nonsense

by Jane S. Shaw

A lot of nonsense is frequently expressed about the relationship between taxpayer “investment” in universities and economic growth. The trouble is, it’s sometimes difficult to know which is nonsense and which is sensible.

Thus, the latest federal “investment” in a North Carolina public university (sorry, I just can’t call it investment with a straight face) is being praised but also scrutinized. Jesse Saffron of the Pope Center is scrutinizing it.

In January President Obama went to Raleigh to announce that NC State would get $70 million from the Department of Energy to set up an advanced manufacturing institute—one of 45 around the country that the president wants Congress to authorize. This is the biggest federal grant the land-grant university has ever received. Another $70 million will come from private industry and the North Carolina government.

Senator Kay Hagan lauded the project because it would create jobs. But investments are supposed to create products and services, and this one is dubious. It’s supposed to improve a new kind of semiconductor that will make products such as electric cars cheaper. That reminds me of a public-private partnership in the 1990s that was supposed to create a hybrid.

But then Toyota came out with one, apparently without help from government. There may be lessons here.