American-made innovation begins with federally funded research
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Members of Congress return to Washington this week with a daunting task in front of them: reaching agreement on funding the federal budget for the remainder of the fiscal year and averting a government shutdown.

Moreover, the negotiations and decisions made this week about how to prioritize federal spending are a likely foreshadowing of what is to come when Congress quickly shifts its focus to next year’s budget. Embedded in these budgeting actions are decisions that will have a profound impact on the future direction of our nation.

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Specifically, will Congress agree to deep cuts to federal science agencies and programs, as suggested by the White House, or continue to invest in these areas that are essential to U.S. prosperity and economic growth?

 

As leaders of the research enterprises for two major universities and active participants in our local communities’ economic development efforts, we have observed firsthand how federally funded research and institutions of higher education are playing a major role in developing and supporting innovation-based economies.

This is important since regional economies with a robust knowledge and innovation ecosystem can offer stability and resilience when traditional economic anchors, like manufacturing industries, decline as they have in the Midwest for the last 50 years.

Science and innovation play a significant role in the economies of Indiana and Ohio. Our institutions of higher education both support industry and are a catalyst for new research-driven entrepreneurship.

More than 100 startup companies have spun out of Indiana-based entrepreneurial programs at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and Purdue University, and many companies have similarly gotten their start at The Ohio State University. In Ohio, and particularly at Ohio State with its land-grant mission, industry engagement is very strong, with research and development partnerships among major automotive and aerospace companies dating back to the 1940s. The seeds of these programs are almost always fundamental research supported by federal sponsors.

The foundational role that federal research funding plays in driving this type of discovery and innovation is often underestimated. This is why a new report from The Science Coalition is so timely. It identifies companies — across the country — that are the direct result of federally funded research conducted at a U.S. university. The 102 “American innovation success stories” highlighted in the report are bringing to market transformational innovations in health, materials, technology, defense, manufacturing, education, and agriculture. These are the types of innovations that keep the United States globally competitive and the world’s leader in science and technology.

The companies also employ 8,900 people, pay taxes, purchase materials, equipment and services, and contribute to their local economies in many other ways. These companies are here today because university researchers had access to competitively awarded grants from the very agencies that — depending on the course chosen by Congress — could see their budgets cut dramatically.

Core Quantum Technologies, an Ohio State spinout company, is using quantum dots — semiconductor particles 10,000 times narrower than a human hair — to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. While founder Jessica Winter was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she realized that her lab’s basic research in nanotechnology could be applied to cancer treatment. Winter credits funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and training she received in the NSF’s I-Corps program with enabling the research that led to the formation of her company and a new tool for cancer treatment.  

South Bend, Indiana-based Emu Technology is a manufacturer of leading edge computers that address the fundamental limitations of conventional high-performance computing systems for big data applications. The 20-person company announced last fall a partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to study the use of its Emu Chick Memory Server for Department of Energy applications. Emu traces its roots back to a series of Department of Defense-sponsored research projects at Notre Dame led by company co-founders Drs. Peter Kogge and Jay Brockman.

These are just two examples from the 102 that are highlighted in The Science Coalition report. Similar successes are happening across the country. What’s stunning is that the public investment in the foundational research behind those 102 companies was just $265 million spread over many years. In addition to the company startups, this research also advanced our knowledge; educated future scientists, engineers and doctors; created direct jobs and equipment purchases; and helped build a skilled workforce. Given this type of return on the public’s investment, we should be funding more research not less.

It’s impossible to predict what might be lost if Congress opts to cut research funding, but it’s not hard to imagine what might be gained through continued, strong federal funding for scientific research: the seeds for many, many more American innovation success stories and the talent that leads those efforts. We urge Congress to continue its long, bipartisan tradition of investing in the seeds that will sow American-made innovation and economic growth.

Robert J. Bernhard, PhD, is Vice President for Research at the University of Notre Dame. Caroline C. Whitacre, PhD, is Senior Vice President for Research and Professor, Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity, at The Ohio State University. Both universities are members of The Science Coalition.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.