A couple of years ago, I nearly tuned out when I caught the middle of a news story about cuts to higher education. (Sorry, KPBS!) Thinking about the state budget usually makes my head foggy.

But then I heard a familiar voice, one of the sagest people I’ve met in San Diego, put the cuts in perspective — beyond rising tuition. If UC San Diego can’t attract the caliber of researchers and faculty it’s used to, or it can’t afford to pay all of them, UCSD will attract fewer graduate students. That’s not just a university problem, either — many of those students graduate and take their skills to work for companies started by other UCSD alumni.

Here’s what caught my attention that day. Marney Cox, a guy who’s studied the way San Diego’s economy works for years as chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments, put it like this:

“That would short-circuit this whole economic development activity and job-generation process that we’ve spent so long creating, right, over the last 30 years or so,” he said. “We’ve made a very sincere effort and (a) successful one. So, it’s that kind of thing where you might make short-term decisions that have unfortunately disastrous long-term consequences.”


I know life scientists, researchers and technologists play a gigantic role here. Real estate developers and artists are invoking “innovation” at their conferences and meetings. But despite reporting for years about San Diego’s economy and job market, I hadn’t really thought about what the innovators among us need — or what may keep them from making discoveries.

Politicians love staging campaign speeches at companies that turn algae to fuel and sunlight to electricity, ones that have found new orifices through which to perform surgeries, or that turned telecommunications on its head, or that advance military strategy or that integrate robots with live actors onstage. Federal initiatives for brain exploration and drone development made recent headlines for their local impacts.

But how far do those conversations advance in the public realm when the pols move on? And how should we talk about the times when federal initiatives aren’t aligned with San Diego specialties? Or when local policies unwittingly drive those people away?

Compare this realm with tourism, another huge sector of San Diego’s economy. We have a whole tax for hoteliers and tourism boosters, and as the last few months show, we hear about the slightest impact to their bottom lines. Politicians love speechifying about our beaches and attractions, too, but tourism industry leaders keep the conversation going.

There are some obvious reasons for the contrast. It’s often simpler to follow tourism logic than to study what the breakthrough at the biotech firm in Sorrento Valley means for disease prevention. And the whole “innovation” world is nebulous — are we talking about a sector? What about companies that are still making something that someone came up with decades ago? Should that still be deemed innovative?

I want to learn over the next several weeks. What could stymie the kind of invention and innovation that San Diego strives to be known for? Let’s learn together how innovation shapes San Diego, now and in the region’s history, and what could impede discovery from continuing to happen here.

In many cases, we’ll be pulling together resources and talking about issues that have been reported and discussed before, by us and others. My friend Roxana Popescu, who’s written for VOSD before, has written a few stories over at U-T San Diego about some of the factors that make San Diego a good breeding ground for ideas and innovation. Business, health and economy reporters at the U-T, KPBS, Xconomy and elsewhere regularly report on the ideas San Diegans are developing.

But it can be difficult for people inside and outside of each sector to take the daily news — a company starting, another one leaving town — and put it in context. And if this is one of those realms you’ve never paid much attention to, I hope this will be a good place to start.

This is the next project in the in-depth, explanatory reporting effort we’re calling “quest.” We started last year with our popular Balboa Park series. Next we explored homelessness in San Diego. I see these, and this new effort, under the same umbrella. What do these stories reveal about San Diego’s culture and identity, and what do we learn from them about where the region is headed?

I hope you’ll join me on this quest. What do you want to know about hurdles to innovation here?

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Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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