School of thought

UVA President Teresa Sullivan argued for the economic benefits of university-based research in a speech last week entitled “Higher Education as the Engine of the American Economy,” the first in the Miller Center of Public Affairs’ fall forum season.

Sullivan’s recipe for economic growth? “Gather diverse human talent in a university setting, add proper financial investment, allow time for discovery through basic research, add incentives for commercialization and stir vigorously.”

“We need a renewed national acknowledgement of the essential role that colleges and universities play in driving the economy, followed by appropriate investments to support that role,” said Sullivan.

After opening her remarks with a list of American innovations derived from federally funded research, Sullivan turned toward legislators. “Policymakers who are searching for a solution to the sluggish American economy are surrounded by clues to the solution. The economic and societal impact of higher education should be apparent to them every time they drink a glass of Vitamin D-fortified milk, every time they brush their teeth, every time they buckle a seatbelt.”

Distinguishing between basic research, which is conducted purely out of scientific curiosity, and applied research, which is often done with commercial applications in mind, Sullivan cited the National Science Foundation’s 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators, which found that universities conducted 55 percent of the basic research done in the U.S. in 2008, while businesses conducted less than 20 percent. Sullivan asserted that university researchers have the patience and freedom to conduct “the kind of disruptive, innovative research that becomes the foundation for technological advancement.”

“R and D at most companies is now mostly D,” she said.

But Sullivan didn’t shy away from the commercial side of university research. A recent survey she cited from the Association of University Technology Managers found that 596 new companies were formed as a result of university research in fiscal year 2009, and 658 commercial products stemming from university research were introduced in the same period. Another survey from the Association of American Universities estimated that university-based inventions contributed $450 billion to U.S. gross industrial output and created 280,000 new high-tech jobs between 1999 and 2007.

“All the complicated data I just cited could be translated into a simple recipe for economic growth,” she said. “Gather diverse human talent in a university setting, add proper financial investment, allow time for discovery through basic research, add incentives for commercial-
ization and stir vigorously.”

The problem, as Sullivan sees it? State and federal funding for university research has leveled off and declined in recent years. “Total federal obligations for academic R and D peaked in 2004, at $22.1 billion and declined by almost 7 percent to an estimated $20.7 billion by Fiscal Year 2009,” said Sullivan.

In addition, state support for public colleges and universities has been cut dramatically. Sullivan drew attention to the fact that Virginia state support per student hit a 25-year low last year, while this year at least 20 states proposed major cuts in higher education funding, including as much as $1 billion in California.

If this trend continues, Sullivan sees the competitive edge of the United States waning, as economic competitors such as China and India pour money into university research abroad.

“This engine has effectively propelled the American economy for the last half-century or more,” said Sullivan. “This engine has been one of the great success stories in our national narrative, and with proper, prudent investment, this economy can provide the necessary horsepower now, to drive our economy out of the mud.”

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