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Reality, Not Rhetoric, Should Shape Research Investment

Since the 2016 US presidential election, but frankly for many years, the academic community and those who care about it in America have expressed concern about ongoing federal funding for university research. 

The concern has extended beyond our borders to other countries who turn to the United States as a bellwether for research innovation. The worry is understandable, because almost anywhere we look, whether considering environmental and climate issues; related food, water, and energy security matters; chronic poverty; or the specter of a global pandemic, the challenges we face demand sustained and concerted effort for us to manage them effectively.

After all, existential threats don’t care whether you identify as a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or None-of-the-Above. They don’t care about national origin either.

That’s why, at Northwestern, we remain absolutely dedicated to our mission of pursuing transformative research that addresses humanity’s most urgent problems. Last month, Northwestern President Schapiro shared his visionfor how the University will redouble its commitment to science and scholarship even in these uncertain times. I also offered my views about the importance of basic research to advance innovation that produces broad social good. My contention (and I’m not alone) is that discoveries made at top research institutions have long conferred benefits that transcend partisanship. Such progress increases our quality of life, strengthens our economic health, and bolsters the security of our country and the world.

In recent days, Congress reached bipartisan consensus on government funding through September. In voting on a budget, those elected leaders have sent a clear message to the research community: university science and innovation are incredibly valuable. Rather than the severe and widespread cuts proposed in the president’s preliminary budget proposal, Congress instead voted for a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, with additional money for science funding more broadly. The bill also provided more funding for summer school Pell Grants, as well as money to address the nationwide opioid abuse problem (a substantial problem impacting a broad swath of society).

In arriving at this consensus, congressional leaders may have taken note that the heads of other countries, ranging from China to Canada to France, have voiced their own strong support of scientific innovation. Were America to shrink from its historical commitment to research, this would risk creating an “innovation vacuum” that other nations would eagerly try to fill, increasing their own competitive advantage.

Political leaders also are aware of the highly visible push to continue supporting evidence-based research, as witnessed in last month’s March for Science, a global phenomenon that took place in hundreds of cities worldwide. Business leaders, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists are also paying attention to the evidence. The facts encourage action.

The current TIME magazine cover story on global pandemics offers a case in point, one that makes for unsettling reading: over the past 60 years, there’s been a fourfold increase in new diseases each decade, with the number of outbreaks each year since 1980 tripling. Impacts from previous outbreaks, such as the 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed about 800 people, cost the global economy $54 billion in trade, transportation disruption and medical costs. A severe flu epidemic could cost at least $3 trillion and up to $4 trillion, according to World Bank estimates. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is concerned about emerging threats such as the H7N9 flu strain jumping species and igniting a global pandemic that could kill tens of millions. Some global health experts, including from the CDC and World Health Organization, believe we are seriously unprepared for the next (and inevitable) outbreak. The hazard is real enough that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is investing $100 million over five years to fund a public-private initiative called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), whose mission includes accelerating vaccine development against known contagious threats, as well as investing in the fight against future pathogens.

University research has a clear role to play in the world today.

Let’s stay with the global health example, one area among many where academic research can make an impact. The university ecosystem, unfettered from most of the market pressures impinging on the for-profit world, is well positioned to catalyze new drug discovery, helping to move breakthroughs from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside. Northwestern supports this kind of effort in numerous ways, such as through the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS), a hub dedicated to accelerating innovation across the University and beyond, and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. Northwestern’s 50+ University Research Institutes and Centers also make an impact. Our Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP), Center for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery (CMIDD), the Center for Developmental Therapeutics (CDT), as well as the  International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN), Simpson Querrey Institute (SQI), and the Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine (CRN), are among those leveraging interdisciplinary science to accelerate and translate basic research from the campus to the clinic. Northwestern thought leaders in many other areas also combine rigor and relevance to create ideas with important social impact.

Notwithstanding decisions that can result in “brain drains” from important public agencies, I remain confident that when rhetoric meets reality, the American people and their leaders will continue to do the right thing. They will make wise investments in research that have the potential to produce spectacular returns over the long term.


Jay Walsh is the Vice President for Research at Northwestern University.