Locality and Vitality

The following reflection is one of six focusing on the importance of university research initially posted a decade ago. The following, modified modestly here, appeared on December 11, 2012.

Fourth in a Series on Research

Research creates interest and value for a university and its locale.

According to a May 2011 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), research funding in United States universities is losing ground in the world community of nations. U.S. research efforts once led the world, but domestic investments, public and private, are lagging globally. Atkinson and Stuart, authors of the ITIF study, claim states are experiencing cuts in research funding, nearly 50% in Alaska and a drop in the 50-state average of 2% over the last ten years.

Fading commitment places the U.S. at number 22 in research funding as a share of the Gross Domestic Product—behind Iceland and in front of Germany. That’s right, Iceland. In industry-funded research, the dynamics change little. It is worthwhile to look at why research is important and how it affects local, state, national and world economies.

Research agendas that meet local needs but have international consequences are the most commanding. (WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World)

The idea of thinking globally and acting locally is a cliché. However, the forces making research valuable repeat themselves in manifold settings. For example, Louisiana State University exists atop one of the great deltas on the earth’s surface. The power of delta-focused research at LSU is categorical, as is its effect on Louisiana’s economic, social, cultural and political needs. Likewise, it is globally important. LSU Tiger football has local economic value, to be sure, but is a mere shadow of the power  that new ideas have regarding delta life and opportunity.  The mouth of the Mississippi overpowers the eye of the Tiger.

Principles that affect south Louisiana have utility for other delta regions. For example, the Nile Delta is dominated by the forces of wave action in the region. The same forces impact the Mississippi River Delta. Likewise, the Ganges Delta is especially affected by tidal movement, as is Louisiana. The Okanagan Delta in British Columbia is a coarse sediment delta and, while distinctive, holds similarities to the Mississippi Delta. The examples are as numerous as the major rivers of the world.

Social, cultural, anthropological, political, educational and human and environmental health issues replicate themselves worldwide, driven by the geographic similarities of the world’s deltas.

If the U.S. is to regain its leadership in research commensurate with historical expectations, support of study and inquiry is essential. Research focus must be created to respond to the conditions of the regions where the universities exist to provoke support at the national, state and local levels.

Correctly approached, the knowledge and insight generated are valuable locally and globally simultaneously. The 21st-century begs vertically integrated approaches with local and global value if the enterprise is to flourish. Innovation, insight and creative activity propagate positive economic motion. According to the National Science Foundation, it is not uncommon for growing economies in the developed world to have 40 to 50% of the economic growth hinged on university activity. Developing countries show an even more robust impact from university research. Job growth is created by new ideas that attract capital.

Science and engineering research also spur creative expression and innovative work in literature, history, the arts and other scholarly disciplines. This synergy of discovery locally makes the university simultaneously more powerful as an economic force in the regional, state, national and international realms. Local needs drive global agendas.

Knowledge, in all its forms, is seed corn for economic development.

The daunting challenge for the U.S. research enterprise, according to The Atlantic Century, is this: The U.S. ranks sixth in the world for changes in global competitiveness over the past decade–slippage in the power of ideas: the crucial currency of a free society.

Declining research productivity in our universities leads to a lack of innovation and job creation. Whitehead would argue intellectual vitality is not far behind. Likewise, this deficit creates challenges for universities as economic drivers in the regions where they exist.

Research is fuel for a well-grounded economy. That’s the cold truth, and acknowledging that may allow us to overtake Iceland.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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