Universities are crucial to innovation
San Francisco Chronicle
By Linda P.B. Katehi and Jackie Speier
Congress has until the end of the year to act in order to avoid more than $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts that are slated to occur in January. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realize federally funded university research would be a big casualty of the "fiscal cliff."
Securing a robust and reliable stream of research funding must become a top priority for the United States.
In America, we have a romantic vision of innovation and invention. The Wright brothers fiddling with flying machines in the fields of Kitty Hawk, N.C. The founders of Hewlett-Packard and Apple toiling in garages to spawn personal computing. A college student in his dorm noodling his way to Facebook fame and rewriting the global rules of social engagement in the process.
While inspiring, these iconic stories of American ingenuity overlook a most important reality: The vast majority of our innovations take place in the research labs and workshops of this nation's universities.
Consider the example of Lucas Arzola. Arzola, 26, was born and raised in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and came to UC Davis in 2007 to study the use of living organisms in biotech.
Today, he is the founder and CEO of Inserogen, a biotech startup based out of UC Davis' Engineering Translational Technology Center. Inserogen is commercializing a technology that Arzola developed as a graduate student at UC Davis: a method of turning tobacco leaves into vaccine-producing factories. This discovery promises to reduce vaccine development time from six months to six weeks, an advance that could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
Arzola did not stumble on this science while puttering in a garage or in a dorm room. He developed the technique in collaboration with other talented graduate students and under the mentorship of top scientists, working in the laboratories of one of the nation's most competitive research universities.
He received four National Science Foundation grants and fellowships to support his education and research, including a federal Innovation Corps grant that taught him the skills to be an entrepreneur.
Arzola is not alone. Thousands of graduate students and faculty researchers at UC Davis and other University of California campuses are at work on breakthroughs to fight disease, reduce global warming, enhance food security and much more. Taken together, the breadth and depth of research at the 10 UC campuses staggers the mind, driving innovation in everything from film and cancer research to lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The same is true of major research universities across this nation.
University research translates into more than just new ideas. It is directly responsible for jobs, economic health and the long-term competitiveness of our state and nation. Congress must act to prevent more than $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts. If these cuts result in an estimated 8.4 percent cut to federal research, how many graduate students like Lucas will no longer have the support to make that next critical discovery?
Over the past four years, state support for the UC system has been cut 27 percent, or more than $900 million. UC could lose another $375 million in state funding if voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown's revenue-raising initiative on the November ballot.
Corporate and philanthropic research funds are certainly prized, but they will not make up the sheer volume of what is necessary.
As a nation, we cannot afford to give short shrift to research. Fortunately, history provides reason for optimism.
The space program, the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan are proof of what we can achieve with clear focus and unwavering commitment. Our future will not be invented on the budget-cutting floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Linda P. B. Katehi is the chancellor of UC Davis. Rep. Jackie Speier is a UC Davis graduate who represents San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
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