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Opinion: Federal investment in university research is critical to surging public-private partnerships

When a SpaceX passenger capsule docked with the International Space Station on March 3, completing a flawless daylong trek, it put an exclamation point on the success of public-private partnerships.

On the eve of that headline-making voyage, NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard and colleagues from NASA were on our campus in Boulder to help us celebrate 70 years of space innovation and university fundamental research at the University of Colorado. CU has for years been among the top one or two recipients of NASA public university research funding.

Philip DiStefano. (Handout)

While public-private partnerships such as the SpaceX success will continue to be highly beneficial to advancing our nation in space and other scientific endeavors, we can’t overlook the importance of university research that is the building block for these important public-private enterprises. Industry wherewithal and university fundamental research go hand in hand.

For example, federal funding supports CU research in studying the many impacts of space weather on Earth, from its impact on our electrical grid to our communications satellites. It also supports two experiments supported by CU launched on SpaceX last June studying new cancer treatments and bacteria that produces electricity.

President Donald Trump released the blueprint of his annual budget request to Congress this month, proposing $2.7 trillion in spending cuts. The president’s budget proposal adheres to discretionary spending caps that would reduce essential federal funding, including to federal science agencies, by approximately $225 billion over the next two years.

Wisely, Congress chose to reinvest in federal science agencies over the last two years, providing much needed additional resources for NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. However, if the budget caps are not lifted, these investments will backslide and our nation’s scientific and economic progress will surely slow.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Meanwhile our global economic competitors, such as China, are dramatically increasing  investments in research and development. China increased its outlay in R&D by 18.5 percent in 2017, according to the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Federal investment in fundamental scientific research at leading research universities across the nation is critical to the next generation of scientific discoveries, commercialization opportunities and for developing the workforce talent pipeline that the nation needs.

This investment benefits the country for years to come as scientific discoveries yield new innovations and technologies that enhance public health and well-being, energy technologies and our national defense.

Federal investment in fundamental scientific research must be sustained and predictable to maximize these public benefits.

The American public supports federal investment in fundamental scientific research. Recent national polling by The Science Coalition and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other major science organizations, found that a majority of American voters approve of increased federal funding for scientific research — support which transcends political affiliation.

As the American voter would also understand, federally-funded research facilitates the most important kind of “technology transfer” — the knowledge passed on from faculty to student.

This transfer of knowledge revitalizes and renews the intellectual infrastructure that forms the backbone of our innovation economy and helps prove the value of a degree that parents, students, lawmakers and the White House are all demanding of colleges and universities. At CU Boulder, for example, more than 2,000 undergraduates participate in research.

Continued federal funding for America’s research universities will preserve and advance our nation’s place in the world and educate our future leaders and pioneers.

Consider that 62 years ago students and scientists at CU Boulder developed rocket-steering technology to launch Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp to challenge Sputnik and help pioneer the U.S. Space Age. Today, Ball employs 2,800 people. It was CU’s first spin-off.

Congress must act to sustain federal research funding for the future of our country.

Phillip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder.


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