One of the most ubiquitous buzzwords of the past few years is innovation. The term can seem inescapable, and this is particularly true on a college campus. But there are good reasons behind that. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, we promote innovation relentlessly, encouraging our students and faculty to chase their ambitions. We’re a hub for startups, for entrepreneurship, for making ideas concrete. As dean of Georgia Tech’s engineering college, I’m proud to see us at the forefront of big changes in science and technology. But one thing hasn’t changed: We still need money to make it all happen. And that’s a resource that’s been sorely lacking at public universities. It might come as a surprise that although the United States was once the world leader in funding university research, it no longer holds the distinction. It’s really not even close: Of 39 developed nations, the U.S. currently ranks just 24th in government funding and 27th in business funding as a percentage of GDP, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. In fact, the seven leading nations on this list each more than double the U.S. level of research support. While U.S. research universities remain the envy of the world in some ways, our research has suffered thanks to two decades of underfunding. The future of both public and private research universities is growing uncertain given the cuts in higher education budgets and decline in federal research support. Consider this: Almost none of the conveniences, comforts, security and infrastructure we enjoy today would be possible without public investment.
About a decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering published a list called Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives, which included automobiles, the telephone, highways, spacecraft, health technologies, the computer, and the Internet. All these technologies were works of transformative ingenuity – and most, if not all, became realities thanks to years of public investment. I want today’s college students to build the engineering achievements that will transform their own lives. Innovation is also the key to long-term economic growth, because it leads to more jobs and creates expansionary employment effects. For example, growth of the information technology industry in the 1990s drove broader economic development that created thousands of new jobs, which in turn led to more job growth in IT support industries. And innovation often fosters more productivity, which results in higher wages and lower prices. So why not rely on private support? Think about three key factors that drive innovation: the time it takes to commercialize a product, success rates across a product portfolio, and financial return. Companies invest to drive future profits, but if a significant return isn’t guaranteed, corporate investment just doesn’t happen. Besides, private research and development tends to require return in a smaller time frame and is most successful when risks are smaller.
The public sector, on the other hand, invests in longer-term research that will expand knowledge and encourage future innovation in the business world. Without public funding, economic growth and job creation can’t reach their full potential. Meanwhile, university-based research often plays a crucial supporting role in national security and defense.
Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, has said that “cutting science funding to help the economy is like saving an overloaded airplane by removing an engine.” And yet cuts persist, while resistance to more federal spending of any kind grows.
We have to reverse the trend before it’s too late, because the future of our nation depends on our ability to do the advanced research necessary to sustain it. Let’s make sure innovation is bigger than a buzzword by giving universities the resources needed to enable it.