National Summit on Competitiveness


Last Tuesday, I participated in the National Summit on Competitiveness: Investing in U.S. Innovation held in Washington, D.C.

I was invited by former Michigan Gov. John Engler, currently president of the National Association of Manufacturers and one of the key organizers of the meeting.

The meeting—hosted by the Department of Commerce—was intended as a kind of wake-up call to draw public attention to something a lot of us have known for a long time: That the United States is losing its competitive edge internationally because of the ongoing disinvestment in education and research.

Participants were a group of national leaders, including key members of Congress and the administration, CEOs of companies concerned about being globally competitive, and a handful of university presidents—three from the Big Ten, including MSU—whose institutions are contributing to those efforts. Getting so many busy, high-level folks to participate in a day-long meeting like this says a lot about the shared sense of urgency about how we need to move the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines forward, even during difficult economic times. We need to make an investment in our nation’s future competitiveness.

The Lansing State Journal ran an article the day after the event that pretty well sums up what went on and what came out of the meetings. The National Association of Manufacturers posted a brief recap in their blog and also has a more detailed report available for download.

So instead of just reviewing what you can read elsewhere, I want to share a little of what I saw and heard there as a participant, then talk about what it all might mean for MSU and for Michigan.

For lunch, I sat at a table with Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf. Besides being a primary mover in convening the summit, Rep. Wolf is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chair of the Science-State-Justice-Commerce Appropriations subcommittee, which, among other things, is responsible for funding the National Science Foundation. And if you’ve been following developments on campus, you know that one of our goals is to attract more fellowships and funding to MSU research projects from the National Science Foundation.

So it was a great opportunity to kind of get inside Rep. Wolf’s head a bit, to hear what he’s thinking. He’s a strong advocate for science education and research and the essential role those will play in terms of being competitive on a global scale. He’s been quoted as saying that our investment in the physical sciences and engineering ought to be tripled. And as someone who’s long been interested in international development, Rep. Wolf is familiar with the trends around the world. He’s made it clear that we can and must do something now in order to keep our nation internationally competitive, and it’s clear that the NSF is one of the key ways we can do that.

Here in Michigan, and especially at MSU, we’ve been talking about those same issues for a while now. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve reached a consensus that a concerted effort has to be made, and that universities in partnership with business and industry will be essential to making that happen.

As one of the nation’s leading research universities, and with the historic international focus that’s made us one of the top 100 universities in the world, MSU is already looking at ways to better prepare our students for participation in the global economy and to find applications for our research that will stimulate economic development and assure that the benefits of our work have an impact globally, while at the same time rebounding benefits to Michigan and its people.

Over the years, land-grant and public research universities like Michigan State have been delivering the key discoveries that have been the basis for all kinds of advances. At Michigan State, we teach it, research it, and engineer it for the marketplace—you could say that we provide the R&D for society and the greater good. We’re high-value producers, and an engine for economic growth and global competitiveness.

If you listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” when they broadcast from campus a few weeks ago, you heard about homogenized milk and MSU research helping to develop higher quality popcorn. You’ve probably heard about an MSU discovery, Cisplatin, that helped save Lance Armstrong’s life, but you may not know that foundational chemicals were developed here for Tamiflu, which could play a huge role in fighting a possible international flu pandemic. And right now we’re working on new ways to replace metal-based and petroleum-based products with green products from Michigan’s agricultural industry, and using the manufacturing capacity we already have in the state to produce them.

We’re building momentum. Last year, the Cherry Commission report underscored the importance of Michigan’s research universities in building a workforce that would fuel the new knowledge economy for the 21st century. The SmartZone initiative for mid-Michigan was a step in that direction. Prima Civitas broadens the effort. And our latest research thrusts into the areas of homeland security, health and biomedical research, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology and biomass conversion for the post-petroleum economy move us onto a global stage. We embrace all of those opportunities—a big part of Boldness by Design is to position Michigan State in the forefront of such efforts, as a leader, not just in Michigan and the region, but around the world.

So if anyone asks what I was doing in Washington last week, tell them we were charting a course for our future by building on our historic strengths. But in a lot of ways, that’s what we do here at MSU every day.


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