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Crow: As a nation, we need to wisely invest in research

September 03, 2010

By Michael M. Crow

In the American economy of 2010, we have but one option for competitive success – to lead the world in innovation, entrepreneurism and the sheer generation of new ideas. 

One of the best ways to jump-start those new ideas is by investing in university research and supporting graduate students. Since 1990, more than 75 percent of all industrial patents issued in the United States have academic research as a key source of new knowledge. 

That’s why it made so much sense – despite the carping of critics – for research and development to be included in federal stimulus funding, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

There are those who are using this investment to make political statements. They typically name a few projects, state the funding level, come to gross conclusions about the projects and ridicule the investment. They totally miss the point of the investment.

As a nation, we need to wisely invest in R&D. Now more than ever that is true, unless we’d rather stand by and watch our science and technology position weaken further and our economy remain in peril.

Since 1945, American growth has been largely driven – greater than 70 percent – by technological innovation, new technological platforms (such as the Internet), new ways of doing things (smart phones), and new ways of thinking (renewable fuels based on growing and refining of specific strains of algae).

Stimulus research funding has targeted goals such as these. ASU, for example, received stimulus money to design and construct a synthetic system that uses sunlight to cheaply and efficiently convert water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen, to improve methods for detecting tuberculosis in children and to give surgeons better and more cost-effective training.

Even projects that may seem funny or bizarre to a layperson are part of the economic development package. For example, understanding how a mosquito’s stomach functions may seem frivolous, but not if its purpose is to engineer a malaria-free mosquito. 

Unfortunately, it’s easy to poke fun at some types of research when the bigger context is missing. 

For example, one project recently lambasted by critics received nearly $300,000 to study the atmosphere of Venus. What was missing from the criticism is that studying the Venusian atmosphere can help us better understand our own atmosphere, like how heat is transported to Earth’s poles solely through atmospheric effects, which is important to understanding the mechanics of global climate change.

It’s also easy to dismiss the importance of pursuing basic research that expands our knowledge – and may spark other discoveries that create jobs and improve our lives. History provides a clear lesson.

In the late 1940s, researchers John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain were working on solid-state alternatives to the fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers of the day when they developed the world’s first solid-state transistor. Little did anyone know at the time that the transistor would go on to revolutionize the electronics industry, allowing the Information Age to occur, and make possible the development of almost every convenient modern electronic device, from televisions, to computers, to smart phones. 

Clearly, the sheer level of energy devoted to the process of scientific discovery and technology development has given the United States a competitive edge. 

Without continuing to invest in this fundamental piece of economic development, our options will be reduced and our preeminence lost.

Dr. Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University.