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Univ. Research Execs See Science Economic Benefits

Capitol building

(skeeze, Pixabay)

15 July 2015. Senior research executives at 10 U.S. universities described the benefits of scientific research to their campuses, communities, and nation at a roundtable discussion today in Washington, D.C. The forum, organized by the Science Coalition and Association of American Universities, also described perils of uneven federal research funding as well as related dangers of increasing politicization of federal research funding agencies.

The research executives by and large found collaborations between academic researchers and businesses beneficial, but noted some caveats. Fred King, vice-president for research at West Virginia University described a spin-off company from his campus that developed a device that identified biomarkers of stroke, to help diagnose the type and timing of strokes for more timely and accurate treatments. Another spin-off company King described is developing a portable PET scanner that makes it possible to scan brain activity while people carry on their day-to-day lives, and gain more accurate data for diagnostics.

David Conover, vice-president for research at Stony Brook University, highlighted a collaboration model that brings start-up companies from outside the university system. Conover said the program, part of the statewide Start Up New York campaign, attracted 18 companies to the campus, generating 180 jobs and $12.7 million in revenues. In addition, Stony Brook is part of a consortium of 5 campuses on Long Island creating a venture capital fund to support university spin-off enterprises.

Mark Redfern, University of Pittsburgh’s vice-provost for research, outlined that institution’s annual Big Ideas competition that attracts some 100 student teams from across the campus, not just engineering students. Teams compete for cash prizes that provide seed capital for their budding enterprises, as well as training from economic development organizations in the region.

In response to a question from Science and Enterprise, David Wynes, vice-president for research administration at Emory University in Atlanta noted that the recent financing boom in biotechnology  led to increased research funding as well as licensing income for the university, an economic situation that turned around since the economic downturn in 2008.

Jay Walsh, vice-president for research at Northwestern University, said at his campus research support is now coming from a variety of sources, including businesses, even in the local Chicago community. Walsh also noted that more research on drug discovery was finding its way into start-up companies, which was driving a closer relationship between scientists and companies commercializing their findings.

Walsh added that close relationship, however, sometimes presents a challenge at managing the relationship between the campus and company. Other panel members also pointed out the need to watch for conflicts of interest, while Maria Zuber, vice-president of research at MIT said they advise students “to first get your degree, then start a company.”

Keep politics out of science

While the research executives largely bullish on business and economic collaborations, they expressed considerably less confidence in the increasing politicization of science in Washington. Gloria Waters, vice-president and associate provost for research at Boston University, remarked that politicians need to understand how science works. “”Science is a search for the truth,” said Waters, “and sometimes the results will not be what one side or party wants to see, but the results are the results.” Waters added that scientists consider finding the truth their contribution to the national interest.

University of West Virginia’s King underscored the importance of speaking directly to citizens in making the case for the benefits of science. “We spend a lot of time trying to make our case to members of Congress, but what they do is listen to their constituents,” noted King. “We see the surveys where people do not seem to understand the value of research for their taxpayer dollars. And we have to be much more effective in how we make that case to them.”

The panel likewise highlighted the difficulties caused by favoring some types of research over others, particularly when withholding funds for political reasons. One area threatened by political forces is social science research. MIT’s Zuber told how studies of water use in western states suffering from drought, for example, are very much studies of human behavior.

Pittsburgh’s Redfern pointed out that cyber-security, a hot topic in Washington, also has a large human behavior element. Northwestern’s Walsh added that studies of education draw a great deal from social science, and show for example that voucher programs in Florida are benefiting students in both public and private schools.

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