U. of I. ‘may lose a big federal grant to clout’

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WASHINGTON — University of Illinois Board Chair Chris Kennedy is sounding an alarm, worried a bid by the school and its partners for a $70 million federal Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute grant may be influenced by a senator’s clout — and end up in Huntsville, Ala.

Kennedy, noting the clout history of Illinois — harking back to the days when the late Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., could vastly influence decisions — told me Sunday, “there is a certain irony to the fact that we may lose a big federal grant to clout.”

President Barack Obama announced in his 2013 State of the Union address that he wanted to create three institutes to pool the resources and talents from academia, business, and local, state and federal agencies to spur research and development to help develop products, train students and workers and keep the U.S. high-tech and industrial base competitive.

Putting “a great research institution” in Huntsville — “a place devoid of manufacturers, impossible to get to” is, Kennedy said, is “like locating an oceanography lab in North Dakota. It doesn’t make any sense.”

In contrast, Chicago has an abundance of academic and private industry resources, high speed cable, access to massive computer power and with its central location, “allows thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of manufacturers to come here on a day visit.”

The grant is expected to be awarded in the coming weeks — the original date of Dec. 2 has been pushed back. Kennedy told me in a Sunday interview the grant may be slipping away from UI Labs, the nonprofit based in Chicago that developed the proposal for U. of I. and its partners.

The U. of I. bid includes partners from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, New York and Oregon and is competing against consortiums from New England, California and from Huntsville.

Kennedy said he heard about the clout threat via well-informed, plugged-in sources.

The university has lots of supporters, elected officials, government workers, and that network is providing us with feedback, and that feedback is indicating perhaps a certain United States senator is so focused on bringing home this grant to his Southern state that we may not get it, Kennedy said.

The senator in question is Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Defense spending subcommittee, and this is a Defense Department project. Durbin has written two letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to bolster the U. of I. bid, on Aug. 8 and Nov. 8. Durbin’s Nov. 8 letter was signed by a total of 16 senators, including Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
  • “The Midwest-based Digital lab is uniquely positioned to bring transformational returns on the federal government’s research and development investment, unlocking billions in value for American manufacturers, expanding access to new technology and opportunity for small manufacturers and creating high-wage, high-skilled jobs for American workers,” the Nov. 8 letter said.

The U. of I. trustees were briefed on the latest developments concerning the bid at Friday’s board meeting, a “wake-up call” to rally its alumni, students, faculty, staff and the congressional delegation “to champion the interests of our state.”

  1. A PowerPoint presentation to the board Friday included this salient point about the engineering firepower Illinois has: “More than 9,000 engineering undergrads enroll across University of Illinois campuses each year. That’s more than Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, and CalTech combined.”
  2. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, retains his close ties to and is in constant contact with the White House. It remains to be seen if he can help deliver the grant for the UI Labs.

“To locate something that is meant to help industry into a place away from industry is like crazy government policy,” Kennedy said.

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