Huge grant spotlights how universities benefit state's economy

October 23, 2013 

It happens so often that it’s easy to take it for granted. But hold the “ho hums” if you please. On Wednesday, The News & Observer reported that more than $100 million in research grants will be coming to universities in the Triangle from the National Institutes of Health. They are called Clinical and Translational Science Awards and will fund research by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in partnership with N.C. A&T State University and RTI International.

The amount is breathtaking, and the aim of the intended medical research is to turn clinical research discoveries into practical applications that help patients.

Duke was one of the first recipients of this type of grant, in 2006, and had its grant renewed for $47 million over five years. UNC-CH, in partnership with RTI International and N.C. A&T, will share in a $54.6 million grant aimed at turning scientific advances into treatments. A Duke research director noted that it’s nice for the long-time sports rivals to be linking arms in the effort to move science from the lab to the hospital bed.

Let’s hope those Republican legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory, who have made an issue of how universities should focus on training people for jobs instead of educating them in, say, arts and literature, take note of what’s going on here. Universities do train people for the workforce, but they’re also about ideas, about opening minds, about exploring new horizons.

And sometimes that exploration happens to produce jobs, such as those that will come from these latest grants.

It’s appropriate to recognize again the recent grant from the National Security Agency to N.C. State University, another frequent recipient of federal money, to establish a place for “data scientists” to analyze information. That grant was over $60 million.

Duke and UNC-CH have long been in the top 20 or so universities receiving NIH grants, as their medical complexes are among the best in the world. In 2010, for example, factoring in money from the federal stimulus program that came in the previous year, Duke ranked 10th and UNC-CH 14th when it came to NIH grants, according to MedCity news. Duke got $439 million and UNC-CH got $382 million in that time frame.

These universities and, for that matter, most research universities more than “earn their keep.” Those hundreds of millions of dollars support thousands of jobs. And when important discoveries are made – and they are at N.C. State, UNC-CH and Duke – they make a difference to the world.

And they have made a difference when it comes to the formation of a spectacular success such as the Research Triangle Park, made possible because of the proximity of the area universities and their attraction of cutting-edge high-tech companies.

What made and makes RTP work is a collaboration between private companies and the government at the state and federal levels. It’s the fruit of an approach that engages the open-ended possibilities of university research. It’s not about job-training, but it’s an economic engine that will keep running for more generations.

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