U.S. Economic Power Hinges on Research Universities

U.S. Economic Power Hinges on Research Universities

By Mary Garbacz

The top research universities in the United States, including the University of Nebraska, are largely responsible for the economic power of this country and to keep this momentum, the United States must make sure its economy is growth-oriented and competitive, according to Prem Paul, Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That requires support for research and for the pool of talented, well-educated people who create innovations and turn those innovations into employment opportunities.

Paul said the U.S. has long been a respected world leader in education, technology and creation of new knowledge. But many other countries are duplicating the U.S. model and are investing heavily in education, research and technology development - and are catching up fast.

The U.S. must continue to supply a pool of well-educated people to take the jobs of the future, Paul added. This talent development is essential, as is strong support for research that benefits students directly so they will be more competitive in the marketplace and able to compete for the high-paying jobs that will contribute to economic development, Paul said.

Talent development is one reason university research is important. "The other reason that universities have to do research is that no one else is doing it," Paul said. Even basic research projects may take 10 or more years to achieve results, which isn't feasible for private companies that may need to show a profit sooner, he added.

Understanding Research - The Circle of Innovation

Cirlce of Innovation

Cirlce of Innovation graphic on page 12 courtesy of
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office of Research


Paul said research is the starting point of what he calls a Circle of Innovation. That circle begins with basic research, expands to applied research, then to new business creation, then to new products, more jobs, a larger number of well-trained workers and finally, to economic growth, Paul said.

Basic research is driven by curiosity. It's the research that results in the major innovations we take for granted, such as the World Wide Web and all sorts of electronic gadgets, Paul said. Basic research also finds the answers to scientific questions. One example of basic research is finding the genetic makeup of a wheat plant.

Applied research expands on basic research and finds answers that improve the way people live, such as uses for the World Wide Web or for those electronic gadgets. Taking the example of the wheat plant's genetic makeup a step further, applied research might create a new wheat hybrid that prospers using less water. That changes the way people live, because the creation of such a hybrid would save water and make it possible to grow crops in areas where it was not previously possible. [Creating a new wheat hybrid takes 12 years, according to P. Stephen Baenziger, Ph.D., UNL Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Small Grains Breeding and Genetics.]

Applied research, such as developing that wheat hybrid, takes basic transformational concepts and discoveries and converts those into products, then into jobs, Paul said. Those jobs require well-trained workers who earn good wages, then contribute to economic growth.

Work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln "is a powerhouse in material science, food, plant genomics, water and energy," Paul said. "What we need to do now is capitalize on that to grow jobs, either with existing companies or by having new companies form, then keep our young, talented people right here in Nebraska and grow Nebraska's economy."

Paul said areas of increasingly important research and product development include biomedical research; development of higher-quality food for less cost; improving the environment; water quality and sustainability; and new energy sources.

"Not only do we do good science and produce products and support and grow industry, but how do we communicate to people how important food is?" Paul said. The challenge in communicating the importance of research is in teaching people what it takes to produce food; people in larger, urban communities often don't know what it takes to produce the food they eat, Paul said.

"In the last 10 years, we were blessed with our faculty working very hard. We've attracted the top-talent faculty and what we've seen is a growth in research enterprise here," Paul said. Research funding at UNL is one way to look at that; UNL research funding went from less than $50 million in the year 2000 to more than $122.5 million in 2009, Paul said.

"Money gives us resources to be able to do the research, but it also tells us we are in a better position to compete for very hard-to-get grants," Paul added. Those hard-to-get grants, often for many millions of dollars, are awarded to top researchers who have the ability to carry out the proposed work. As a result, faculty members are making new discoveries, receiving awards and publishing, Paul said, and now those assets will be converted into jobs.

The Mission to Educate Scientists

The United States needs to make sure there is a future workforce that understands STEM education, Paul said - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. "Our ability as a nation - and our state, competing in the new economy - it is very, very important that we have good teachers in those areas and that we're inspiring young people to pursue those careers," he added. The 4-H initiative called One Million Scientists. One Million New Ideas™ is the goal of the 100+ land grant institutions in the U.S. and its territories and promotes the education of one million new scientists by 2013. Nebraska's 4-H program, administered through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension office, has one of the nation's leading programs, involving one in three of Nebraska's young people as well as 10,000 volunteers.

Teaching, research and extension are the three basic missions of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; often, those missions are combined. Almost every research project being conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Paul said, involves undergraduate students and graduate students working shoulder-to-shoulder with professors. "Not only are they learning from the very best, but they're helping to create new knowledge," he added. Connecting research and education is important, he said; "if research is stored on the shelves in professors' offices, then we missed our opportunity to educate people and make an impact. That's where extension comes in. It's very, very important."