Stanley: Protect research institutions from sequestration -- and beyond

"America's research universities are one of the most

"America's research universities are one of the most potent sources of innovation in our country, helping us prosper both at home and abroad," writes Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. (Credit: Janet Hamlin)

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The across-the-board, automatic cut of $1.2 trillion in government outlays over the next 10 years that's set to take effect on Jan. 2 will have a profoundly negative impact on U.S. colleges and universities. Both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have articulated their support for investment in basic scientific research, but hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding will be lost if Congress does not agree on a deficit-reduction package, and this sequestration takes effect.

This could be catastrophic. America's research universities are one of the most potent sources of innovation in our country, helping us prosper at home and abroad. Yet these institutions, particularly the public ones, are challenged by uncertain funding at the federal level and declining state support. And from some quarters, the role of research and new knowledge generation in higher education is being questioned.

Recognizing these threats -- and the importance of research universities to our national health -- in 2009, Congress asked the National Research Council to come up with the top actions that Washington, state governments and universities themselves could take to ensure ongoing excellence in research and doctoral education.


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The stakes are high. Congress' request stated that such excellence is needed "to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century."

The easy answer would be more money. But the recently released findings of the NRC panel charged with answering this question are eye-opening.

To be sure, long-term, stable and increased funding from all governmental levels is key. Yet, there are other equally important steps to secure our nation's prosperity and security. We need to give universities the autonomy and the tools to form partnerships with businesses to spread the benefits of their knowledge, ideas and technology.

Consider that research universities are a vital asset to our nation's future. In partnership with such agencies as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, Stony Brook University and its sister institutions have contributed significantly to national security, public health and economic growth. These partnerships have spurred discoveries that have transformed our world, leading to new businesses and expanding existing ones to the economic benefit of the institutions' local regions. In the United States, each of the developed technological growth corridors, including Silicon Valley, the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts and North Carolina's Research Triangle, have research universities at their core.

New York can serve as a model for how a state can maximize the potential and power of its research institutions for the benefit of its citizens. At Stony Brook, for example, the state provides both direct support of research through programs like our two centers of excellence -- one in information and wireless technology and another in advanced energy -- as well as a large investment in salary and benefits for our faculty. The state has built our campuses and the state-of-the-art research buildings and educational facilities they contain, including these two centers.

In return, Stony Brook has made some amazing discoveries: the first nuclear magnetic resonance image (MRI) of a living organism, the first commercially successful bar code reader, and one of the most effective treatments for heart attacks.

Beyond money, the federal government needs to modify research policies and practices governing university research and graduate education. Reducing red tape, developing consistent and fair reimbursements for the costs associated with research, and enacting stable and effective policies and practices for university-performed research and development -- and for graduate education -- will ensure that the nation has a stream of new knowledge and educated people to power our future.

One of the most important recommendations from the NRC report is to find new ways for academia and business to work together to accelerate the transfer of our innovative discoveries to society to help achieve our national goals.

Stony Brook University has long been a leader in collaborating with industry -- for example, our Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology houses faculty, new start-ups and well-established companies to facilitate innovation on all fronts -- and we welcome the opportunity to do more with regional and national partnerships. One way to achieve this goal is to encourage collaboration between research universities and national laboratories.

A blueprint for addressing many of the NRC report issues is found in the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science) Act. Fully funding this initiative would be nothing short of game-changing in terms of our country's commitment to research and development, and it comes at a critical time in our nation's economic and technological trajectory.

The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations. A report from the Center for American Progress shows that in China, the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates increased by 218 percent from 2000 to 2008. In India, it tripled each year from 1999 to 2006. Meanwhile, here at home, the annual number of STEM graduates from four-year colleges and universities increased by only 24 percent. We have to do better than that.

In 1957, in response to Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, refocusing the country's attention on scientific achievement and the knowledge needed to accomplish it. This is our generation's Sputnik moment, and we must respond just as aggressively with new investments in research, development and STEM education. Our representatives in Washington must ensure that our research universities aren't held hostage to sequestration of funding. To do otherwise will profoundly hamper our nation's economic vitality, global stature and national security for generations to come.

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