April 20, 2014
You don’t need a scientific study to understand that research is a key to future Chicago — and American — jobs and economic well-being. Too bad some cost-cutting politicians, who think R&D stands for Repeal and Delay, don’t grasp the connection.
The evidence was clearly spelled out in a report Tuesday by the Washington-based Science Coalition that tracked down 100 companies that can trace their roots to research done at universities — and that now employ 7,200 people. Seven of those companies started out at the University of Illinois at Chicago — more than at any other school in the country — and two each had their beginnings at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.
The study was more than a feather in the cap for Chicago as a leading research center. It also showed how much of our regional economy is anchored on high-level scientific research. Federally sponsored research at just one institution, UIC, totaled an estimated $252 million in 2012, and ran to $737.8 million at all three U. of I. campuses. A strong group of research-intensive universities is a big part of the Chicago area’s innovation economy.
But now that’s at risk because of Washington’s so-called sequester — congressional across-the-board budget cuts imposed in March and scheduled to continue until 2021. Scientific research is taking a big hit — an estimated $95 billion — and scientists worry that losing nearly a decade of funding will mean losing a generation of innovation. Moreover, the nonpartisan Information Technology & Innovation Foundation estimates it will reduce America’s gross domestic product by $203 billion to $860 billion. Even before the sequester, federal spending on research had been slipping for a decade. The sequester is making it worse.
In today’s global knowledge economy, nations compete on innovation. Even as the United States cuts back, other countries, including South Korea and China, are getting more aggressive about funding science and research. Those countries have seen how well the huge research enterprise the United States set up after World War II has boosted our economy. The ITIF reports that about two-thirds of award-winning U.S innovations are based at least in part on research at government agencies, federal laboratories or research institutions.
In September, a survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found many young researchers were leaving the field because of the funding cuts. In July, the director of the National Institutes of Health and leaders at Johns Hopkins University warned that continued across-the-board cuts could slow advances in fighting disease, cost jobs and drive scientists to other countries. The NIH budget was cut by $1.55 billion as part of the sequester, and the institutes had to drop 703 research grants this year. Earlier this month, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Randy Schekman said the research that led to his prize might never have been funded in today’s environment.
Around the country, research institutions are closing labs and giving researchers pink slips. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, seems more focused on cutting entitlements than on restoring research funding.
“A lot of [America’s] superstar researchers are getting lured away to Asian countries,” said Mitra Dutta, UIC vice chancellor for research. “Even Europe has done a better job with funding.”
Brenda Russell, a UIC professor of physiology and biophysics whose company Cell Habitats grew out of university research, called impact of research cuts “horrible.”
‘I see it most in the morale of the young people, the graduate students and the junior faculty,” Russell said. “I see it in the senior faculty, too. One of my colleagues who was funded by NIH has just moved to the University of Hong Kong . . . because they have more money and more security.”
“Congress and the White House now are negotiating over next year’s budget. Restoring research funding should be among the priorities. It’s critical both for the Chicago region and the nation as a whole.