1. Opinion

Column: USF well positioned to lead research drive

Published Apr. 4, 2013

As the economy shows signs of recovery throughout the United States and much of the world, many are turning to leading research universities to stimulate innovation and economic growth.

From emerging economies in India and China to ambitious state governments across America, we are witnessing unprecedented investments in higher education in what has become a worldwide race for talent.

As other states jockey for leadership in the global economy, Florida cannot afford to be left behind. Supporting our public universities is essential to recruiting, nurturing and retaining the best and brightest scholars, scientists and engineers. It's about keeping our most talented students at home and stemming the outflow of talent to other states through providing Floridians broader access to a world-class education.

Research universities, such as the University of South Florida, serve as catalysts for innovation, generate new solutions to complex problems, and improve lives — all while preparing the highly skilled workforce essential for our state's business sector to flourish. We create spinoff companies and bring high-paying jobs to the communities we serve.

The challenge for Florida as the nation's fourth-most populous state is that the University of Florida remains our sole member of the Association of American Universities (broadly regarded to represent the top 62 research universities in North America). This means Florida lags behind 15 states, including California (with nine AAU members), New York (six), Massachusetts (four), Pennsylvania (four), Illinois (three) and Texas (three).

Data show that AAU universities attract the most gifted undergraduate and graduate students, receive more than 60 percent of federal research funds, and are home to 70 percent of U.S.-based Nobel Prize winners and 53 percent of national academy members including America's most accomplished engineers and scientists. More than half of all U.S. Ph.D.s are awarded by AAU institutions, which also secure 53 percent of patents. Additionally, nearly 1,800 university startup companies are affiliated with member institutions.

To compete successfully with other states and nations, the Legislature must act now to support the University of Florida and other universities that are best positioned for national and international research excellence.

Investments must be aligned with performance using independent, objective and nationally recognized benchmarks. Specifically, Florida's top research universities must adopt and be held accountable for meeting the well-defined rigors of the AAU's performance indicators. Promoting commercially or locally derived goals will only hamper the progress of Florida's institutions onto the national and world stages.

Florida's cities represent the heartbeat of economic vitality and destinations for new businesses, and that is why at least one leading metropolitan-based university must be designated for research pre-eminence. Today, with the support of its partners across Tampa Bay, USF is best positioned to achieve that goal.

USF is a young, ambitious and globally engaged university that leverages its entrepreneurial strength from the communities it serves. Supported by cutting-edge research in medicine, engineering, life sciences, materials science, marine science, sustainability and veterans' reintegration, USF has become one of the nation's fastest growing research universities over the past decade, spurred on by the state's investment in the High Tech Corridor.

Our talented faculty and students (many being first in their family to attend college and representing a much broader socioeconomic spectrum than the state's older universities) work tirelessly to find answers to real-world problems. A global leader in patents and commercializing our technologies, we are Florida's second-highest producer of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and second in online course delivery.

For each of the past three years, USF has placed second only to UF in performance on AAU metrics and is one of only two Florida universities included in the National Science Foundation's Top 50 for research funding among both public and private universities. We are also one of just two Florida institutions, with UF, to merit a place in the Top American Research Universities' Group 2, alongside the likes of the University of Chicago, Emory, University of California-Berkeley, Cornell and Virginia.

Investing in USF and other top research universities is not about competing within Florida, but rather about growing our state's reputation and world-class university capacity with our shared goal of positioning the Sunshine State for competitive success in the global marketplace of the 21st century.

Ralph C. Wilcox is provost and executive vice president at the University of South Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.