LARAMIE — The importance of leaning on one another when there are few resources to go around is something rural residents understand well.
University of Wyoming has helped form a new alliance of schools around the region to do just that. Dubbed the Mountains and Plains University Innovation Alliance, the group of higher-education institutions in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota has already begun working together to bring more opportunities to the area, with the ultimate goal of growing research and the economy.
Each of these schools are in states that have small, rural populations and economies that rely on energy, mining and tourism, UW Vice President for Research and Economic Development Parag Chitnis said.
While these characteristics may be contributing factors to the schools’ hardships, the alliance also plans to use them as a point of strength.
This means connecting faculty and students in different areas of expertise to work on research projects together and networking with the business and governmental organizations in each state.
It also means banding together to advocate for research funding at the national level.
“Together we actually can emphasize the needs of this area and get the attention of Washington, D.C.,” Chitnis said.
The alliance began informally last year, when these schools banded together to convince Congress that a rural emphasis should be placed on the CHIPS and Science Act, a 2022 bill that allocated research funding to groups like the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and NASA.
These groups provide research funding to universities for a range of topics, such as artificial intelligence, forest products and climate solutions, Chitnis said.
As more of these opportunities become available, the schools can work together to apply for research funding and complete projects.
“This is a paradigm shift for research and especially innovations related to digital technology,” North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said in a UW news release. “It will help diversify the region and economy by achieving scale in a way that the individual states might not achieve acting alone.”
There could be economic impacts to this alliance, as well.
Localized research opportunities could turn into new local businesses and products that offer high paying jobs to local residents, Chitnis said.
“It’s important to bring those types of businesses here and also create jobs that pay higher wages to the workforce that is already in this state,” he said.
Members of the alliance plan to work not only with each other, but also with governmental agencies and local business groups to maximize the economic benefit of university activities.
In Wyoming, this could mean collaborating with UW’s Impact 307 program or the Wyoming Business Alliance.
While the alliance is still in its infancy, Chitnis said the top goals will be to establish regular collaboration opportunities and bring in these other stakeholders.
“Education and economy are the two ways in which the university can impact the state,” Chitnis said. “This coalition will help us do both.”