The economic narrative of postsecondary education is well known to most: Students get a degree, they have more skills, they can therefore contribute more to the local economy. But when it comes to discussions around the impact of institutional research and development in surrounding communities, that story often gets lost, said several senior research officers during a recent research roundtable discussion hosted by The Science Coalition and Association of American Universities.
R&D for economic benefit, intellectual curiosity
Universities reported for the first time in five years an uptick in federal funding for higher education research and development by about 1.4% between fiscal years 2015 and 2016 with an upward slope, according to the Higher Education and Research Development Survey conducted by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Still, top institution researchers contend there are significant limitations to innovating, including acquiring funding for applied scientific research and basic fundamental research.
"There's a real need for universities to think like businesses to professionalize their contracts. We're working on master service agreements with different companies," said Chris Molloy, senior vice president for research and development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "We've bridged the gap between academics and R&D in some sense, but it's a trend we will see going forward as federal funding for basic science is flat."
Jerry Blazey, vice president for research and innovation partnerships at Northern Illinois University, echoed those sentiments, noting that smaller institutions like his are responsible for "strengthening local and national economies."
But, Blazey said, a culture change has to happen for innovation to be maintained. "I will strongly echo the statement that a balance is required," he said. "R&D is what leads to innovation. We need to make sure we still have curiosity-driven basic research and innovation."
Padma Raghavan, vice provost for research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, added that creating this mindset is important for societal benefit broadly, as "the aim of basic research is not to make money; it’s to improve the quality of life and benefit society. Commercialization can be a means to that end, but it’s not an end in itself. The benefits of federally funded research are out there, and we need to keep that in mind."
Driving sustainable, appropriate federal R&D investment
A consensus among the senior researchers at the roundtable held last week was that research and development efforts at their institutions and others have contributed to U.S. economic growth.
For instance, Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Colorado Boulder, noted "with about a billion dollars in research, we have about a $12 billion dollar economic impact footprint on the state of Colorado." She mentioned the institution's spinoff of Ball Aerospace, which "was an early seed for Colorado becoming the second-largest aerospace economy in the country."
But in order for investment in research and development to be sustainable and not only for applied sciences, Blazey said it's critical that administrators actively share anecdotes with policymakers about how all types research have led to economic benefits.
That's key, said Mark Barteau, vice president for research at Texas A&M University, because "as administrations change we see things swing between fundamental research and more applied research, and the fact is we need all of it. A more consistent federal policy, less subject to the swings in Washington, would be of great benefit."
That's already reflected in funding from the National Science Foundation, said David Conover, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Oregon, but added appropriations tend to go to applied sciences. Administrators must take communicate the purposes of research, he said, and keeping an eye on what's prioritized.
"If you look at what NSF funds today versus two decades ago, it has moved in the applied-science direction," said Conover. "While this reflects changing national priorities and is therefore understandable, we must be vigilant and make sure that the primary mission of NSF remains the funding of fundamental research.”