Eric Barron: Federally funded university research transforms lives |
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For decades, the federal government has turned to universities to undertake research in a wide array of fields, including health care, energy and national security. Such investment is crucial for encouraging basic scientific research — the bedrock for the applied research that results in the applications and inventions that have transformed our lives.

For example, there wouldn’t be magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) if scientists never developed nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to study molecules; there wouldn’t be a drug to treat ovarian cancer if scientists never studied DNA; and there wouldn’t be high-performance batteries to power cell phones and electric cars without materials science researchers studying how lithium moves inside nanoparticles.

As profit-maximizing enterprises, businesses can’t easily make these investments. It’s why agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health devote resources to this type of moonshot science and technology . It’s been a fruitful partnership — not just for universities and the federal government, but for society at large. And we have so much progress yet to make.

Universities have a key role in fostering an environment that supports discovery and entrepreneurship. They contribute talent development, provide advice to the private sector and advance community development — all of which contributes to an ecosystem ripe for innovation. This not only benefits people’s everyday lives, but it also plays a critical role in strengthening and growing our economy. As these businesses grow, they create jobs and support the communities and states in which those businesses are located.

A new generation of entrepreneurs is already leading the way. Consider two graduate student-led start-ups that grew out of federal research grants at Penn State.

Magnitude Instruments is radically reshaping transient absorption spectrometers that are essential for product development in fields such as medicine, energy and technology. The company’s spectrometers, which are devices that enable scientists to study physical properties of chemicals and materials, are smaller, more affordable, more robust and easier to operate, while improving performance 100-fold. The ease of operation dramatically increases the number of individuals who can effectively operate spectrometers, reducing burdens and costs for companies conducting cutting-edge research in science and technology. Prototypes of Magnitude Instruments’ spectrometers were produced in a Penn State laboratory supported by U.S. Department of Energy funds.

spotLESS Materials has created a self-cleaning coating that can help tackle a global problem that claims millions of lives around the world. In much of the developing world drinking water is contaminated by human waste because more than 2.3 billion people globally lack access to basic sanitation facilities. More than 500,000 children under age 5 die each year from communicable disease transmitted through contaminated drinking water. The underlying issue is lack of water to operate toilets.

The Gates Foundation has invested heavily in developing a toilet that can work even in the most remote, hardscrabble parts of the planet, and spotLESS Materials addressesscarcity of water, because the coating requires far less water to allow a system to function. This holds the promise of solving one of the greatest challenges to making access to sanitation facilities universal. spotLESS Materials benefited from several NSF grants that supported the technology development as well as the commercialization of the product.

These companies, powered by extraordinary ingenuity and entrepreneurship, are hardly outliers. The internet can trace its roots to federally funded, basic mathematical research into packet-switching at universities. Google’s founders benefited from NSF funding, too. And we’re on the verge of what “looks like a cure” for sickle cell anemia, according to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, thanks to federal research investment. Broad federal investment in university research and development has the power to not just transform the way we live our lives, but to save them, too.

Robust investment in federal research is essential to our success as a country, which is why businesses are outspoken advocates for federal investment in research and investment. Without federal funding, many of our country’s most groundbreaking innovations would have never made it out of the starting gate.

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