Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Column: Research universities help fuel America's economy

As proud as the University of Florida is that our basketball team made the Final Four, we're equally proud of the science we sent along with it.

The orange buckets of the sports drink our researchers invented have been a staple on the sidelines for decades. The color of the bucket you see on TV this weekend has changed, but the basic hydration technology behind it was born of a conversation between a football coach and a kidney specialist nearly 50 years ago.

That technology also launched what is now a $7 billion sports drink industry.

We didn't set out to create the world's leading sports drink. We just solve problems. That's what research universities do.

Addressing the biggest challenges of our times — world hunger, climate change, the spread of disease, an overwhelming amount of data, to name a few — is one of the very principles around which we organize our campuses.

We've invested billions of dollars in creating environments to test ideas. We've built laboratories, established intellectual property protections and formed research partnerships with private companies and public agencies.

But most of all, we've assembled the talent to come up with the next Big Idea. It's what continues to make American research universities a magnet for so many of the best scientists and students in the world. If you think universities are assertive in recruiting an 18-year-old point guard, you should see them go after a top-tier bioinformaticist.

The federal government has played a key role in providing the resources to take full advantage of the idea factories we've created. The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture and Commerce have all been supporters of university of research.

That partnership is no accident. It goes back to the very founding of our nation. The Constitution empowers Congress "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…"

People who have never worn a lab coat intuitively grasp the importance of science.

They know it because they see the how discoveries contribute to our culture, our commerce and our cures. University research has given us life-saving vaccines, lasers, touch-screens and MRIs. It has equipped our military men and women with technology to defend our nation and our interests around the globe. And yes, they see on their TV screens or in arenas how it has restocked athletes' electrolytes so they can play harder for longer.

Legislative support can be more fickle and subject to the vicissitudes of competing budget demands. That's why the Association of American Universities has been calling attention to what it has dubbed the innovation deficit. It's the gap between where we are and where we need to be in investing in research and higher education. Closing that gap is essential to retain our global economic competitive edge.

It's not a risk-free investment. Not every research initiative goes from the lab bench to the courtside bench. In fact, part of the key to our success is that we're not afraid to fail. We know there are misfires and dead-ends in research. If the path to innovation were clear, we wouldn't need research in the first place.

Research universities' shots are guided by practice and expertise, so we've scored often enough that our steady stream of innovation has been one of the pillars of the post-World War II economy.

The 68 teams in the NCAA tournament were thrilled at the prospect of competing on the national stage — even though they all knew that 67 of them would lose their last game. That's not failure; that's an opportunity to achieve.

Similarly, research that doesn't turn up the expected results is not failure. It's a necessary step in the march of progress.

We may not wipe out hunger, cancer and energy shortages overnight. If we don't strive to do so, though, we know we won't deliver the breakthroughs the public depends upon us for.

Win or lose the tournament, we'll be back on the court next year. And win or lose, we'll never stop pushing for scientific progress. I'll confess, some of our labs may be dark for a few hours this weekend while researchers take a break to catch the games. But day after day those labs at our research university and others will continue to cast light that makes the nation a better place.

Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida.

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