University Research: Investing in Transformative Ideas

Posted April 28, 2017 by Jay Walsh

Cancer treatments. Efficient next-generation energy sources.  Breakthroughs in plant sciences to lessen hunger.  Better understanding of the economic implications of educational policies.  Insights into the relationship between urban environments and people.  Glimpses into the origins of the universe, the fate of the universe, and life elsewhere in the universe.

The world is full of puzzles, problems, and wonders. It’s only through an ever-deeper understanding of the physical world, the biological world, and the human world that we overcome challenges and can advance. Progress requires an understanding of the scientific fundamentals to improve the quality of life here in the United States and around the globe.  Basic research uncovers these fundamentals and so must be funded continuously to achieve the desired quality of life improvements.

So where to go to find people devoted to the discovery of those fundamentals? A university is a great place to start. A university is a knowledge hub, a place where students attend classes and learn. While this mission is certainly at the heart of Northwestern and every other university I know, there is much more to a research university. Not only do faculty in a research university educate in the classroom, they also teach through the creation of new knowledge. Some of that knowledge is directly applicable to life today; some will become applicable years, or even generations, from now. In this effort, research universities are special. Their faculty members self-select to excel in both teaching and research — and each of those components is expected and rewarded by promotion and tenure decisions.

More importantly, both components are why research universities drive the economy. It is difficult to think of a single aspect of modern society not significantly influenced by the research activities of our universities. I was recently visiting SpaceX where they are using ultrasound techniques to check for manufacturing defects. Such tools came about because of the basic research of colleagues like Jan Achenbach, the celebrated Northwestern engineer. The space-age polymers we use for so many applications today often were born in the laboratories of renowned chemists like Tobin Marks. The metals of most Apple products are informed by the efforts of Northwestern engineering thought leaders such as Greg Olson and distinguished University alumni like Charlie Kuehmann, who is contributing his expertise as vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

We can find examples of Northwestern’s research in every field, including law, where our faculty have shaped a range of important legal issues and reforms, such as those involving intellectual property, medical malpractice, and wrongful convictions. Our social science faculty, including through the cross-disciplinary work at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), have an impact on many issues that inform education policy and ameliorate social disparities. Similarly, Northwestern humanities scholars are active in advancing their disciplinary discourse while also creating real-world benefits for communities. One example is the Odyssey Project through the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Odyssey brings Northwestern academic excellence to those who otherwise would have limited or no access to such education. And, of course, many are familiar with the major contribution that Northwestern basic science played in inventing Lyrica, the chemical compound developed in Richard Silverman’s laboratory and which treats seizures, neuropathic pain, and other conditions. Each of these discoveries has had a significant social impact. Growing our economy. Creating jobs. Improving our quality of life.

I gave examples of world-class basic research being done on Northwestern’s campus, but visionary research takes place every day on university campuses across the country.  The truth is, university research matters more than ever. And so does government support of that research. As Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, says: “Those who believe profit-driven companies will altruistically pay for basic science that has wide-ranging benefits —but mostly to others and not for a generation — are naïve. If government were to leave it to the private sector to pay for basic research, most science would come to a screeching halt.”

However, federal funding for overall R&D as a share of the total federal budget has been declining for four decades, according to AAAS data, dropping from about 1.25 percent in 1976 to less than 0.8 percent in 2016. Similarly, OECD data indicate that US gross domestic investment on R&D has been basically flat over the last quarter century, with America being outpaced by several countries, including Japan, Israel, and Korea. This trend has alarmedthose who see it as a growing US “innovation deficit” in relation to the rest of the world. Today’s competition for talent and the resources that spur breakthrough discovery is a global enterprise. While the United States is still an impressive engine for innovation, other countries now understand that the foundation for this engine is government-supported basic research — and these nations are responding accordingly.

Whether we are talking about astrophysics, materials science, robotics, synthetic biology, cybersecurity, or botany (to name a few areas), basic science has a significant impact. It catalyzes innovation. Sometimes that innovation serves national defense, as it did during World War II on such initiatives as the Manhattan Project, spearheaded by President Roosevelt’s Office for Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the forerunner to the National Science Foundation. Overseen by inventor and engineer Vannevar Bush, OSRD bridged basic and applied research and was part of a post-war trend that saw a proliferation of technological innovation that came to define the “American way of life.”

Since then, American investment in R&D has largely transcended political parties. Despite some differences in opinion about exactly what research to prioritize, the American people and their elected representatives have seen the value of such discovery and so have supported it. There is broad recognition of the importance of basic research. This recognition has existed for decades. Funding this research has continually improved the quality of life for people in the United States.

We now find ourselves, once more, in a conversation about funding for basic research — especially certain types of research. I firmly believe that once these conversations conclude, we will again hear and see that the American public and Congress will robustly support foundational research.  Americans remain interested in enhancing the quality of life for themselves and for the generations to come.

We are all honored and privileged to be a part of such exciting foundational work.


Jay Walsh is the Vice President for Research at Northwestern University.