Prioritize university research [Commentary]

If you Googled something today, you experienced university research in action. In the mid-1990s, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, then doctoral students at Stanford, developed the algorithms that developed into their ubiquitous search engine. Likewise, university research has led to countless innovations that improve our health, protect the environment, strengthen our security and power our economy. Examples range from radar and lasers to synthetic insulin and forensic DNA analysis. Yet, federal support for such research has diminished, also diminishing the breakthroughs that research can produce.

In good news this week, Congress agreed to a spending plan that will increase the budgets of a number of federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and NASA, that heavily fund university research. However, for a number of other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, those increases will not even restore their budgets to where they were before sequestration. We need to make university research a higher priority in light of the many ways we benefit from it. In fact, we see its impact all around us.

UMBC researchers provide ready examples. If you have eaten fish at any number of local restaurants, there's a good chance you have tasted Yonathan Zohar's work. Professor Zohar has developed aquaculture technologies poised to revolutionize the industry by producing clean, healthy saltwater fish for the global marketplace. Historian Kate Brown, in her recent book "Plutopia," lays out the impact that nuclear power has on local communities and national identity. And Stuart Schwartz, a water systems expert, is growing radishes on vacant land in Baltimore to test whether they help compacted city dirt absorb rainwater.

We must support researchers like these if we are to continue benefiting from the technologies and insights that research yields. Support should actually start in pre-K through elementary school: engaging students in discovery through hands-on activities where they can apply theories, develop critical thinking skills and learn how to ask good questions. Asking good questions is, after all, the essence of research.

In addition to supporting aspiring researchers across the disciplines, we must adequately fund professors early in their careers and provide ongoing support for innovative senior researchers. Gymama Slaughter, whose research focuses on developing new systems to treat diabetes, recently won a highly competitive early-career award from the National Science Foundation to expand her work. Unfortunately, this type of funding is rare.

Researchers continue to feel the lingering effects of sequestration and other cuts in federal funding for university research. The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that U.S. federal investments in science and education have reached their lowest levels in 50 years as a percentage of total federal spending.

This decrease — at a time when other countries are increasing research funding — drastically affects both researchers' capacity to do their work and the future of our nation. For example, the director of the National Institutes of Health has expressed concern about lost funding for the development of a universal flu vaccine that could prevent pandemics in the future.

Lack of adequate research funding also turns talented youth away from research careers — the very careers that would help promote the long-term growth and health of our nation. A recent National Academies report specifically identifies "insufficient opportunities for young faculty to launch academic careers and research programs" as a major challenge the nation must address to remain a global leader in innovation.

In short, we are making too meager an investment in our future.

Maintaining research strength in a time of budget scarcity requires strategy and difficult choices, but collaboration can make those decisions easier. The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and UMBC, for example, pooled resources to create a fund to support collaborative research. One example is a team working to improve rehabilitation for stroke victims. Baltimore's research and technology parks, such as bwtech@UMBC, the University of Maryland BioPark at UMB and the Science & Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, support public and private collaboration, innovation and economic development.

One exciting large-scale program — the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII) — is a partnership between the state of Maryland and five Maryland universities to help faculty entrepreneurs commercialize their research. For example, UMBC's Mark Marten is developing an additive for chicken feed that could replace antibiotics to produce chickens more safely.

Focusing on research of immediate concern and with clear application is certainly important. However, we must not forget the importance of long-term investments in basic research. Those investments today are the ones that will pay off with new breakthroughs, economic opportunities and jobs five or even 50 years from now.

You don't have to go far to find past examples. Just Google it.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is hrabowski@umbc.edu.


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