Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory experiment with using duckweed...

Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory experiment with using duckweed as a bio-fuel. Credit: Daniel Goodrich, 2010

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s recent decision to move 850 jobs off Long Island stings. Losing any high-paying jobs is bad news for the local economy, but it's the hit to Long Island's psyche that's really painful. We have to snap out of it. What's important is what will be the next economic engine.

The company is our icon of a golden age that is no more. During World War II, the homegrown Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. helped make Long Island a national center of aviation, and the defense industry the linchpin of the local economy. The future seemed boundless. At its Cold War peak in the 1980s, Grumman employed 25,000 people here. The most recent job loss -- leaving only 550 Grumman workers on the Island -- is just the latest word in the company's long goodbye. Long Island needs a foothold in the high-tech, knowledge-based economy. That's the future, and part of embracing it is letting go of the past.

As former Vice President Al Gore told Long Island business leaders on Friday, don't try to preserve the past or replicate Silicon Valley's expertise. Do more transformative research instead, in fields such as artificial intelligence or genetic biology. The future depends on small groups with particular expertise that, with leadership and nurturing, can grow into "clusters of excellence."

So forget manufacturing. Forget luring companies from other states. High taxes, high energy costs, dense traffic, and a convoluted lattice of governments and regulation make it difficult to win in those global competitions.

Long Island has to compete in research and innovation and the commercialization of new ideas to produce homegrown start-ups. The payoff would be high-paying jobs for software engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists, technicians and spin-off jobs to support the vibrant new sectors.

The area's competitive advantages in the battle to become the home of the new new thing are its top-notch schools, educated workforce, proximity to New York City and cutting-edge research institutions -- Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory and the North Shore-LIJ Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Hofstra University and Farmingdale State College are increasing their research roles as well.

But growing new industries won't be easy. It will take funding to expand research, seed money to develop ideas, affordable places for innovators to work and network, and access to business expertise and venture capital. Initiatives like the Long Island Association's Accelerate Long Island program are working to create that ecosystem. But Long Island is in "the Rip Van Winkle, waking up phase," says Mark Lesko, Accelerate Long Island's executive director. A year ago, there were no seed funds on Long Island, or business mentor-in-residence programs or workplaces for innovators, such as the Thought Box in Hicksville. Now there are, but more are needed.

Long Island should try to become the place to be for companies in emerging niches such as artificial intelligence, DNA synthesis and personalized medicine, where diagnostics and therapies are genetically tailored to individuals.

The growing threat of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure presents another rich vein of high-tech jobs that Long Island should mine. Northrop Grumman's lone remaining operation here is a center of excellence for electronic warfare. And Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) has organized a cyberdefense consortium to inventory the expertise at companies and institutions on Long Island and bring them together to compete for work in the burgeoning industry.

Long Island has finally reclaimed all the jobs it lost during the recession, the state Labor Department said Thursday. But much of the growth is in low-paying jobs in retail and hospitality -- a harbinger of decline in Long Island's standard of living. An aggressive knowledge economy would reverse the trend.