Karen Hitchcock: Scientific Research is Fundamental to our Nation's Economic Competitiveness

Oct 25, 2012

During the final presidential debate this past Monday, President Obama stated that “…if we are not making investments in education and basic research …then we will lose the lead in things like clean energy technology.”  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that both parties have passed platforms which reflect a belief in the importance of scientific research. While significant differences do exist between the parties regarding how government and the private sector should participate in the support of our nation’s research programs, both Republicans and Democrats recognize the role such research has played in growing our economy over the decades since World War II.  And, both parties recognize the important role played by our nation’s universities in advancing basic research across many disciplines.  However, as in so many areas, traditional paradigms are no longer effective. Escalating complexity and costs of research, coupled with financial constraints at both the state and federal levels, are necessitating new approaches to the funding and execution of our nation’s research programs.

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I was President of the University at Albany, I made an institutional commitment to invest in an extremely important but costly area of research  -- nanotechnology. While the faculty was beginning to attract considerable funds to support this research, it was abundantly clear that we would need to establish partnerships with other sectors if we were to be a national leader in this new field, partners who would help support, and themselves benefit from, advances in this extremely important and rapidly evolving area of science.  Then Governor George Pataki, along with the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly, agreed with the argument presented by me and the faculty leader of this research initiative, Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, that investment in this area of research would help attract essential industry partners and, ultimately, attract advanced manufacturing and new jobs to the state.  Thanks in large part to their investment, today, GlobalFoundries, one of the world’s leading chip manufacturers, is here, and thousands of jobs have been created.  And, throughout, industry has been the university’s  major partner.  Starting with IBM, hundreds of private sector companies have invested in this truly unique multi-sector initiative at the University at Albany -- contributing major funds, sharing facilities and partnering in the research and development and technology deployment programs which will define the field for years to come.   

Such university --  industry  --  government partnerships will, I feel, be essential if the US is to remain a global technology leader.  And, to be successful, such new coalitions require a national science policy which recognizes the specific and often different needs of each of the participants, and provides the support and incentives necessary to be globally competitive…incentives like a “permanent research and development tax credit” for corporate R & D,  a position supported by both parties;  an informed immigration policy; a realistic regulatory environment; and, a robust budget for the various federal agencies supporting basic and applied research, to name but a few.

To date, neither party, in my view, has proposed a coherent strategic vision for our nation’s programs in science and technology.  Rather, they have stated their general support of scientific research and specified a number of particular initiatives in such areas as biomedical research and alternative energy.  They speak to the importance of innovation, but do not address ways the federal government can help to facilitate commercialization of academic research.  Indeed, given the tremendous need to generate more jobs, the support of new start-up companies formed around university research should be a priority of both parties.

It is certainly heartening to see that both parties have addressed the importance of science and technology policy in their respective platforms.  However, strategies now need to be developed to facilitate the creation and support of the university --  industry research collaborations so essential to the future advancement of science and technology in this country, advances which will fuel the economy and ensure our nation’s global competitiveness.  The federal government, just as universities and industry, needs to develop new paradigms for the support of scientific research…paradigms like that employed here in New York in the field of nanotechnology where a Governor and Legislature threw their support behind a strong university - industry partnership and helped to create an R & D center which, under the innovative leadership of Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, is now recognized world-wide.  They need to develop policies which facilitate cross-sector partnership and collaboration and accelerate the commercialization of government – financed research.   Given that both candidates have signaled their support of scientific research and their belief in its importance to our country’s economic prosperity, perhaps we can hope for a bipartisan approach to creating the policies and new strategies which will be required going forward.  At least we can hope. 

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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