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Innovation and research are the keys to Alaska’s future

Dr. Alex Hills

Do you know how important science and technology are to Alaska's future? They’re a big deal! New knowledge and know-how will help drive our economic success, sustain our unique culture, preserve our health and protect our environment.

I’m an Alaska engineer who worked to pioneer Wi-Fi technology, which now connects many millions of people to the Internet. I've seen what innovation does for an economy. The good news for Alaska is there’s a team working to make sure we keep strong research and development efforts going, and it has found ways that government, academia, business and nonprofit organizations can cooperate to benefit all of us.

For the past three years, I’ve been privileged to serve on Alaska's State Committee on Research. Co-chaired by Alaska's Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, an entrepreneur who has brought new technologies to global markets, and University of Alaska Vice President Dana Thomas, the committee has found important “game changers.” These are ways that research conducted here in Alaska can have a big impact on our state. We’ve also gained a better understanding of the great importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

The SCoR report describes how science and technology have already made a big difference in Alaska. Read its profiles of our successful inventors, and you'll be amazed. Our final report was presented to the University of Alaska Board of Regents on Feb. 21.

Among many examples of ways that science and technology have helped us are the use of directional drilling, horizontal drilling, and 3-D seismic surveys to improve oil exploration and recovery techniques. These technologies have accelerated the cycle of discovery-to-production for reservoirs on the North Slope. Future enhancements have the potential to further speed discovery and production offshore, in NPR-A, and in ANWR, all of which could increase oil flow in the trans-Alaska pipeline

Alaskans have never been laggards in the world of invention. The FAA's Next Generation air traffic control system, NextGen, will soon provide information on the locations of all aircraft in an area, as well as other flight information, to controllers and to all pilots operating in the area. This state-of-the-art system has its roots right here in Alaska. They go back to the Capstone Project and the efforts of the Alaska aviation community and the University of Alaska working closely with the FAA. The earliest Capstone tests were conducted in the Bethel and Juneau areas.

Science and technology can continue to make a big difference in Alaska. Reducing bycatch, eliminating fish waste, and gaining greater energy efficiency are areas of research with great promise for Alaska's bottom line. And witness the work of some innovative electric utilities, university researchers and other Alaskans to take advantage of our abundant wind power resources by integrating wind and diesel generation to cover periods of slack wind. In some cases, hydro power has been part of the mix. Future research and development like this will be critical to making wind energy widely available and usable to Alaskans.

Human needs are also an important priority. We have made great strides in health education and research to address the needs of Alaska’s diverse population. Our challenges with domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide in the North benefit from good clinical research. Continuing such programs will help ensure a vibrant, growing Alaska.

To continue to build Alaska's prosperity through science and technology, we will need our own crop of Alaska experts. That means our education system -- both K-12 and university level -- will need to teach more science and engineering students in the future.

The State Committee on Research has made detailed recommendations, but the overarching theme is to dial up the emphasis on the research that’s critical to our prosperity, focusing on the areas that are most likely to pay off for Alaska. The SCoR report makes great reading. It describes past successes, and its recommendations will help Alaska’s government, academic, business and nonprofit communities cooperate in research activities that can only bring positive change to our state.

Dr. Alex Hills, who lives in Palmer, is a 44-year Alaska resident. Alaska’s 2007 Engineer of the Year, he has done science and technology work across the United States and in many nations around the world.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.