Keep the lights on: Science funding must be national priority
© Greg Nash

Close your eyes and imagine an America blazing with innovation — a nation crisscrossed by a network of “idea factories” humming with inquiry and industry, where some of our most creative and dogged thinkers develop practical solutions to our most pressing problems in medicine, energy, defense, transportation, agriculture and more.

Imagine how these innovations could save lives, open doors to opportunity, strengthen communities and simply make life better for more people.

Imagine, too, the huge economic ripples radiating from such places as innovations are turned into products, create jobs and propel start-ups and established companies alike.

And imagine America, based on the work done in these hubs of innovation, continuing its claim as the world’s most capable nation — the undisputed global leader, in this century as in the last, in economic and social advancement. 

Now open your eyes and see that these places already exist. For well over a century, innovations by America’s research universities have made America stronger. Breakthrough upon breakthrough has amassed in a body of work that touches all of us every day.

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Recently, Congress put aside partisan differences to resoundingly affirm that such innovation is essential to our nation and its well-being. In passing the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal 2017 last month, Republicans and Democrats found the common ground to restore and even increase federal research dollars.

 

With last month's White House budget request proposing dramatic cuts to federal research and education funding, America needs Congress to step up again. 

It’s not hard to see why members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly defended these important investments in American prosperity. Innovations by university researchers helped create, among many other things, the modern automobile, a host of lifesaving drugs, night-vision goggles for American troops and even the basic components of smart phones.

Companies including Apple and Google owe their fortunes to this kind of research. The patents on such innovations likely number in the hundreds of thousands, while the economic impact reaches hundreds of billions of dollars.

A favorite criticism among those who would cut the flow of research funding is that universities are out of-touch and filled with researchers noodling on rarified concerns in their proverbial ivory towers. A quick scan of what university researchers have contributed to the world quickly reveals this to be nonsense. 

Is the GPS that soldiers (and probably you) rely on every day “rarified?” Is the LED bulb, which provides affordable and efficient lighting to people around the world, irrelevant? How about a high-tech “exoskeleton” that provides mobility to victims of stroke and spinal cord injuries? Or new drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Fragile X Syndrome? How about the Internet? Are these really the kinds of things we want to stop?

By protecting the research dollars granted to universities by federal agencies, Congress ensured the continuation of a partnership that works: The American government working with American universities and businesses to advance the quality of life for the American people, and people beyond our borders as well.

One of the biggest sources of research funding is the National Institutes of Health. At Vanderbilt University, where I am chancellor, the NIH supports much of our biomedical research. Losing those grants would dramatically curtail cutting-edge investigation into areas critical to the nation's health and welfare.

That includes efforts to cure breast cancer and control the Zika virus, the development of “organs” on microchips that could speed drug development by eliminating trials on humans, and promising research into artificial kidneys inspired by, of all things, the filaments of cotton candy. In the 2017 appropriations bill, Congress gave the NIH a vote of confidence by raising its funding by $2 billion. It’s the second increase in that amount in as many years, suggesting lawmakers know a good deal when they see one.

Congress has shown us that our research universities are something all Americans can be proud of, regardless of our political stripes. Of course, as soon as one budget battle ends, a new one begins. As legislators look at the latest budget request, I hope they’ll remain strong in their conviction that thriving research universities ensure a thriving America.

Nicholas Zeppos (@Nick_Zeppos) is chancellor of Vanderbilt University. He also serves on the Association of American Universities (AAU) Board of Directors and previously co-chaired the Senate-appointed Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education. 


 

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