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Climbing The Grid To Growth

North Carolina, a state of just 8 million people, has one of the nation's largest high-tech concentrations, but it has a poor record for commercializing its inventions. However, that may be about to change.

During the past few months, top computer-science researchers from the University of Illinois, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Sun Microsystems have moved to the Tar Heel State to take advantage of a stream of state and private investment in high-performance computing that's meant to try to reverse some of North Carolina's heavy job losses of the past few years, attract a new wave of investment to Research Triangle Park, and make companies across the state more competitive.

The hope is that North Carolina, whose textile-manufacturing, furniture-making, and tobacco-growing industries suffered large numbers of layoffs over the past decade and whose semiconductor, telecommunications, and drug-development industries have been hard-pressed to make up the difference, can ride new investments in grid computing and other information technologies to speed research and development and lower costs for key industries. The state's moves echo a larger discussion happening across the nation: As computer technology takes over many tasks done by people, how can states keep creating new, high-paying jobs?

"The place North Carolina is trying to go is transforming its traditional economic base--textiles, furniture making, and tobacco--to an economic base for the 21st century," says Dan Reed, former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. In January, he left that post to accept a $3 million endowed professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and start the Renaissance Computing Institute, a university-supported high-performance-computing facility that aims to help the state's ailing manufacturing and booming biotechnology industries innovate faster. "It's an issue for the whole U.S. as we move up the value chain and create wealth from knowledge," he says. "The economic conundrum we face is ensuring there are enough well-paying jobs."

North Carolina's Research Triangle Park is a 16-square-mile high-tech development zone that's home to about 42,000 workers whose employers include Bayer, Cisco Systems, Eli Lilly, the Environmental Protection Agency, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, and Nortel Networks. It's also within about a dozen miles of the state's three major research universities--Duke University, North Carolina State University, and UNC Chapel Hill. But the area is just beginning to rebound from layoffs of about 5,500 employees in the past few years. Meanwhile, North Carolina's traditional manufacturing sector has lost 153,000 jobs in the past three years.

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