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Research holds the key to Alaska's future

Posted: February 21, 2014 - 1:06am

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

I’m an Alaskan engineer who worked to pioneer Wi-Fi technology, which now connects 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 (SCoR). Co-chaired by Alaska 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 research conducted here in Alaska can have a big impact on our state. We’ve also gained a better understanding of the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

The SCoR report describes how science and technology have made a big difference in Alaska. Read the report’s profiles of our successful inventors, and you’ll be amazed.

Among the 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 and production for reservoirs on the North Slope.

Future enhancements have the potential to further speed discovery and production offshore, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, all of which could increase oil flow in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Alaskans have never been laggards in the world of invention. The FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System will soon provide the location of all aircraft in an area, as well as other flight information to controllers and all pilots operating in the area. This state-of-the-art system has its roots here in Alaska. Those roots go back to the Capstone Project and the efforts of the Alaska aviation community and the University of Alaska, which worked 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 fisheries bycatch, eliminating fish waste and gaining greater energy efficiency are areas with great promise for Alaska’s bottom line.

Witness the work of some innovative electric utilities, university researchers and other Alaskans to take advantage of our abundant wind power resources by integrating diesel generation to cover periods of slack wind. In some cases, hydroelectric power has been part of the mix. Research and development will be critical to making wind energy widely available and usable to Alaskans.

Human needs are another 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 research programs will ensure a vibrant, growing Alaska.

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

The Alaska 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 that can only bring positive change to our state.

• Alex Hills, who lives in Palmer, is a 44-year Alaskan. 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.

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