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

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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.
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.

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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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 08/14/2013 - 12:12 pm.

    Meanwhile, we’re squelching creativity in the schools

    A perfect supporting read to the above article is “The Creativity Crisis”: A Conversation with Nurture Shock Author Ashley Merryman.


    —Public School Insights: You and Po Bronson write that measures of creativity in the United States are falling. How bad do you think the situation is?

    —Merryman: Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) were developed in 1958 by E. Paul Torrance. He and a colleague tracked kids for 40 and 50 years. They found the TTCT predicts lifetime creative achievement more effectively than IQ. It is a three-time stronger correlation.

    Kyung Hee Kim, a researcher at the College of William and Mary, is one of the people responsible for re-norming these tests. In May, when analyzing over 300,000 scores, she found a pattern that showed a decline in scores since 1990. Before 1990, scores were going up, but they’ve been going down since. The decline is the steepest for young children, specifically school-age children. They are still working on the data, so I cannot say “It has declined X percentage.” But what we can say is that the decline is significant, and Kim considers the childhood score decline to be what she called “most serious.”

    —Public School Insights: Do you think there is a broad effort in the United States to address this problem?

    —Merryman: No. As we wrote, we think that the national strategy for creativity is praying a Greek muse drops by your door. And I have to say, that is probably not too different from my strategy two or three years ago, before I realized there is a science to creativity and things you can do to increase it.

    Part of the problem, and one important thing we wanted to address, is that creativity is not the sole province of the arts. Especially when you talk about creativity in schools, you hear, “There is a lack of funding for art in the school, and no time for it. Isn’t that a shame?” I don’t disagree. But that is not the sum total of creativity. When we put creativity in the artistic box and do not understand it is making something new, original and useful, we miss out. Because we have had what Mark Runco, a researcher at the University of Georgia, calls the “art bias,” we have not really even tried to develop creativity in students, because the arts have seemed comparatively dispensable to kids who can’t read or add.

    Another great article on the topic of creativity and how we’re handling it in the schools is The Creativity Crisis by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman from Newsweek, 00289604, 7/19/2010, Vol. 156, Issue 3


    “Plucker [an academic from Indiana] recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.'”

    The University of Minnesota could, if it had any vision, take a leading role in turning around the creativity gap by requiring all students to take at minimum one course on how to improve their creativity.

    Our K-12 schools should have been doing this decades ago, but given the leadership vacuum at all levels we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s madness, really. But, it’s never too late to turn around the K-12 curriculum and emphasize creativity.

    Dayton, are you reading this? State legislators? Do something.

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