By Tom Still


MADISON – As Barack Obama takes office as the nation’s 44th president, he faces deep, immediate challenges in revitalizing an economy caught in recession. Jolting the economy back to life through stimulus measures that include “shovel-ready” projects financed in large part by federal borrowing is central to his plan.


How should Obama and members of Congress define “shovel-ready” as they consider ideas for jump-starting an economy slowed by real-estate speculation, financial mismanagement and oil price shocks? Let’s hope they look beyond the commonly accepted definition and embrace a description that includes the picks and shovels of the 21st century.


Most people think of bridges, roads and other public works projects when they hear the phrase “shovel-ready.” Given the weary nature of the nation’s transportation systems, and the need to quickly employ tens of thousands of workers, there’s no doubt many of those needs will be deemed shovel-ready.


The economy would also respond, however, to investments in the nation’s high-tech and knowledge-based toolkits. In the race to compete globally, the United States needs more than road and bridges. Here are six examples of “shovel-ready” ideas for a new age:


n  Invest in “broadband communications.” This is a catch-all phrase for high-speed transmission mediums that have the capacity to transmit data, voice and video over long distances simultaneously. Higher broadband penetration allows small businesses, which account for 60 percent of new jobs in America, to expand to new online markets. It creates more businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It helps rural communities attract businesses that otherwise might only flourish in urban settings. Telecom companies say they can’t afford to install broadband in many areas; targeted federal investment would help.

n  Reauthorize the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Launched 25 years ago, this program has enabled 700,000 small businesses to develop cutting-edge products. Eleven federal agencies granted about $2.3 billion in the latest year for merit-based research and development projects. Over time, SBIR and related programs have created 1.5 million jobs in small companies that typically employ high-wage scientists and engineers. It’s a program that works – so why not reinvest?

n  Modernize America’s health information technology. The push for improving health-care delivery, quality and efficiency must involve better electronic medical records and health-information technology. Wisconsin can provide ready examples of what works. Epic Systems in Verona serves some of the world’s largest hospitals and clinics with its electronic medical records, and the Marshfield Clinic’s electronic records system has drawn national attention as well. Washington need not reinvent this particular wheel, but invest in what’s already working and save money and lives while creating jobs.

n  Speed conversation and alternative energy technologies. Gasoline prices may still be under $2 per gallon, but it won’t stay that way forever. Investing now in alternative energy research, including “next generation” biofuels, wind and solar, only makes sense. Existing conservation technologies can help make old and new buildings alike more energy efficient.

n  Follow up the nation’s investment in mapping the human genome.“Personalized” medicine is an outgrowth of the mapping of the human genome, which was completed about five years ago. This emerging ability to tailor treatments to individual patients is a trend that would revolutionize the practice of medicine and drug development. The Wisconsin Genomics Initiative, launched in October, is one prominent project to speed discovery. Former National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni called the Genomics Initiative “one of the very best proposals in the world,” so let’s make it part of a national effort.

n  Pay for the America Competes legislation. This act, passed a year ago, responded to recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences’ report on “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The act calls for more research and development spending and strengthening science, technology, engineering and math education. The law has been debated and passed with bipartisan support, so why not fund it?

The size of the stimulus package is up for debate as Democrats and Republicans spar over how much deficit spending is healthy – and how much is simply passing on debt to the next generation. Whatever the total, let’s hope traditional shovels aren’t the only tool in the box.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.