Point of View

Fiscal cliff-hanger: Research dollars no luxury to our region

The fiscal cliff

December 11, 2012 

The three of us share a concern that goes beyond our friendly rivalry. We’re concerned about the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in Washington, which threaten to slash federal spending on science and research in ways that could be devastating for innovation and economic development in North Carolina.

Our concern reaches beyond our own campuses to our many neighbors across the state whose jobs depend, directly or indirectly, on North Carolina’s retaining a vibrant research enterprise.

As the News & Observer noted recently about the local economy, “the federal research budget is a huge economic engine.” At our three universities, federal research funds support important work – from new cancer treatments to emerging fields such as nanotechnology. The federal investment in research in our region climbs well into the billions of dollars when we add in local colleges and universities, RTI International and federal agencies with major local facilities, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

Awarded by the federal government through a rigorous competitive process, research dollars sustain the basic and translational research typically carried out at universities.

The ideas and insights that are generated are often taken up by local private companies – from technology and pharmaceutical giants in Research Triangle Park to small startups.

These companies create many thousands of jobs as well as new computer apps, genomic therapies and green technologies.

This research ecosystem, which also includes the many local businesses that furnish laboratories with equipment and supplies, has been central to North Carolina’s economic emergence over the past half-century.

Previously, the state’s economy languished as traditional industries such as tobacco, textiles and furniture declined. In response, our three universities, together with forward-thinking government and business leaders, worked together to establish a new economy built on research, drawing on the substantial intellectual resources already in our state. Their bold vision proved successful beyond anyone’s dreams, laying the groundwork for major new software companies, energy technologies, life-saving therapies and more – and for countless jobs.

North Carolina has not been the only state to embrace scientific innovation. Nationally, more than half of the country’s economic growth since World War II can be traced to technological advances. The federal government’s steady investment in scientific research and innovation over the past several decades has given rise to everything from lasers to the Internet. These advances, in turn, have driven prosperity and transformed life from Silicon Valley to Boston, with our own region among the major beneficiaries.

Now, this engine of economic growth is threatened. Even without automatic cuts, federal research funding, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest point in a decade. Legislators in Washington are looking for ways to cut spending further from the federal budget. If they cannot reach agreement, the nation faces draconian spending cuts Jan. 1, including to research in the Triangle.

Even if legislators do avoid hurtling over the “fiscal cliff,” they may be tempted to slash the domestic discretionary budget indiscriminately instead of making hard decisions about spending limited resources to produce the biggest returns.

As they ponder their options, they must recognize that research is not a luxury, or an expenditure we can do without. Rather, it is an investment. It’s spending today to produce prosperity tomorrow. It is also an investment to educate the young people who should become the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, business executives and leaders in other fields.

We must be strategic in how we prioritize federal spending, placing greater emphasis on programs such as research and education that provide great returns on investment and drive economic growth.

The Research Triangle Park, Centennial Campus in Raleigh, the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, and so many other places in our area exist because of previous federal investment in our region’s research enterprise. Maintaining this activity is essential not only for local universities like ours, whose budgets and programs would be devastated by some of the cutbacks now under discussion, but for the region as a whole.

In other words, the very future of our state depends on sustaining this federal research funding. We’re raising our voices together, because we’re all in this together.

Richard Brodhead is the president of Duke University. Holden Thorp is the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Randy Woodson is the chancellor of N.C. State University.

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