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It’s time to address Minnesota’s ‘innovation deficit’

A combination of factors is jeopardizing discoveries, industries and jobs of tomorrow necessary to sustain the state’s leadership.

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The University of Minnesota has a long history of scientific research and groundbreaking discoveries that have dramatically improved our health and quality of life.

A new kind of deficit — an innovation deficit — is jeopardizing future discoveries, industries and jobs of tomorrow necessary to sustain Minnesota’s leadership. Eroding federal investments in research and higher education and sequestration cuts, combined with the enormous resources other countries are pouring into innovation and discovery, are creating the deficit. 

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Dr. Brian Herman

The University of Minnesota has a long history of scientific research and groundbreaking discoveries that have dramatically improved our health and quality of life. The heart pacemaker, the AIDS drug Ziagen and the PRRS vaccine, which has helped preserve swine herds worldwide, were all developed at the U. That tradition continues.

Currently, a research team led by Dr. Reuben Harris of the university’s College of Biological Sciences and Masonic Cancer Center is developing a simple test that could detect cancer at an early stage and allow treatment to interrupt or even stop cancer at earlier stages. The research could significantly alter the landscape of cancer detection and treatment, saving thousands of lives and dramatically reducing health care costs associated with the disease.

Discoveries like this are made possible by sustained funding commitments from federal, state and private sources. More than a decade of research by Harris was required to reach his critical discovery.

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But our health and quality of life are not the only dependents of such investments in science. Minnesota’s economy and job market also benefit. In 2011, the U of M conducted a study to measure the economic and employment impact of the university. At the time, the U had a $823 million research enterprise, which created $1.5 billion in total economic benefit annually and supported 16,193 jobs – many of them high-paying positions. From 2006 to 2011, discoveries and inventions by the U of M delivered an additional $390 million to the state through patents, licensing, royalties and spin-off companies. In fact, the U launched a record 14 startup companies in fiscal year 2013.

Still, the impacts of the innovation deficit are tangible.

In 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invested more than $31 billion in medical research in the United States that improved public health and supported an estimated 432,000 jobs. According to recent statistics, every $1 in NIH funding generates about $2.21 in local economic growth.

In 2013, sequestration will result in a 5.1 percent cut in all federal funding sources.

As one of the top 10 research institutions in the country, the University of Minnesota could experience a loss of $30 million to $50 million this year; about 5 percent of our federal research dollars.

Meanwhile, our competitors across the globe are surpassing us. In the past decade, U.S. research and development expenditures as a share of economic output have remained nearly constant, but have increased nearly 50 percent in South Korea and nearly 90 percent in China, according to the National Science Foundation.

And so the innovation deficit grows.

Is the impact immediately crippling? Admittedly, no. The University of Minnesota is fortunate to have strong industry partnerships and private and state investment to fill some of the gap and make our research more effective. We will continue to focus on meeting urgent and formidable societal challenges. We have the foundation in place to accelerate the transfer and utilization of knowledge for the public good.

But this alone will not sustain Minnesota’s leadership. A long-term commitment to federal investment also is necessary.

As members of Congress return home this month, we have an opportunity to highlight to them why research is one of the best investments we can make in our future. Erasing the innovation deficit will allow us to maintain our leadership in the world, continue scientific progress, save lives and drive economic growth.

Dr. Brian Herman is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota. Last week, U of M President Eric Kaler and U of M Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black joined 163 other university presidents and chancellors in an open letter to President Obama and Congress  urging policymakers to address declining federal investments in research and higher education.

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