Put research universities on the national agenda

03-29-2016

This opinion column by MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon was published online by U.S. News & World Report March 18, 2016

If the "future of America" is to be more than hollow rhetoric this election season, presidential candidates should be asked: How would you leverage America's research and development strength to defend our national security? What will you do to promote our knowledge-economy competitiveness against growing global competition? Who will develop our next generations of innovators and scientists?

Ask, because federal support for research at America's universities dropped 11 percent from 2011 to 2014 when adjusted for inflation, and these funds make up over half of all university research, according to the National Science Foundation. "This is the longest multiyear decline in federal funding for academic R&D since the beginning of the annually collected data series in FY 1972," the National Science Foundation concluded.

We fail to plant the seeds of discovery at our own risk. Extreme weather and shifting climate threaten global and domestic food supplies. Our information systems are hacked and turned against us. Alzheimer's disease is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and antibiotic resistance weakens protections of the last century's wonder drugs.

From where, exactly, will the solutions to the world's greatest challenges come? Don't look to private industry. Frontiers are risky investments, but in science, they're where tomorrow's answers will be found. That's why the government has invested in education and discovery. From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Lewis and Clark, and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, to the Manhattan Project, the space race, and cybersecurity, it is the federal government's urgent business to secure and grow the nation by advancing its knowledge.

Research funding—even science itself—is under increasing political and cultural pressure. I can cite compelling research from my own university to support concerns that partisan efforts to discredit science have an effect. I can also cite research that promises new ways to fight disease, terrorism, famine, environmental degradation, and social conflict.

Now is the time for presidential candidates to talk about their priorities for university research and development. Here are three things we hope to hear:

First, that university research is an indispensable component of America's response to the world's greatest challenges. Just one example: The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa exposed human vulnerability to that deadly disease, but a constellation of research universities have mobilized their field, laboratory and clinical assets to help contain, treat and ultimately, it is hoped, cure it.  

Second, society has a right to steer publicly funded research priorities, but we need to let scientists lead the science. University research has been the subject of derision by politicians looking for a cheap punch line, but in fact we work very hard to focus on what stakeholders tell us they need.

University research supported by the National Institutes of Health, for example, discovered that baby rats thrive when regularly stroked, simulating a mother's grooming. That led to research demonstrating human benefits. Premature infants massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than those left in an incubator. Massage is now part of standard preemie care.

Third, funding for research at America's universities must be increased, reversing a long erosion and defending America's innovation leadership.

On the campaign trail the benefits of university research surround the candidates, from air traffic control systems to selfies taken on the ground. The central processing units, lithium-ion batteries, touch screens, and multicore processors that power their smartphones can all be traced to research undertaken on a university campus. And the return on federal investment in research is calculated to be between 30 and 100 percent, pretty impressive by any standard.

University research enhances America's competitiveness, creating new enterprises and jobs unknown a generation ago. University technology licensing added $187 billion to U.S. gross domestic product between 1996 and 2007, the Biotechnology Industry Association figured, resulting in some 279,000 new jobs.

Finally, research universities support local communities with talented students and graduates for employers, new businesses growing from their research and development, and with economic activity generated from facility construction and operation. Here on Michigan State's campus, a $730 million facility for rare isotope beams supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science is now under construction and expected to generate $1 billion in economic activity over the next decade. It will employ 400 scientists, engineers and other staff, attract hundreds of visiting scientists annually, and will train much of the next generation of nuclear scientists.

There will be a lot of rhetorical tearing down this election season, but when the dust settles, who will build America up through the proven means of education, discovery, and innovation? The answer is America's research universities – but not without the nation's dependable support.

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