Federal research funds are a wise investment

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Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a research laboratory, every day you witness the results of research all around you. The smart phone in your pocket. Wind turbines dotting the horizon. Clean water flowing from the drinking fountain. All of these improvements to our health, environment and human experience started with research.

We see big challenges facing Iowa, our nation and the world. Protecting our natural resources, caring for aging citizens and creating new, high-paying jobs, to name just a few.

How will we solve these and other problems? Thanks in part to advocacy by native son, 33rd United States vice president, agricultural researcher and businessman Henry A. Wallace, universities in Iowa and across the nation compete for funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the departments of Energy and Defense, and other federal agencies to address fundamental problems.

These federal research investments are further extended through collaborations and funding from the State of Iowa, industry and nonprofit organizations.

But this could all change with unprecedented budget cuts to our federal research programs. The currently proposed funding reductions threaten to greatly diminish – and in some cases, eliminate – basic scientific and medical research. The same research that helps us treat and cure disease, feed a growing world and strengthen our economy. Iowans care deeply about these issues.

While the United States has been a global leader in innovation, our national investment in research as a percentage of gross domestic product is now lower than the investment made by several countries in Asia and Europe.

How will these cuts affect us in Iowa? At Iowa State University alone, more than $250 million per year in funding supports research and helps transfer discoveries to the marketplace – 70 percent sponsored by federal programs.

Here are just two examples of new projects in which a decline in federal research investment would hinder our ability to help make Iowa and the world a better place:

• Iowa State researchers are developing sensors, software and crop genetics to enable farmers to make real-time management decisions and precisely manage crop growth and inputs to the field. These discoveries transform the capacity of farmers to balance environmental concerns, profitability and unpredicability due to extreme weather.

• Iowa State researchers are developing new, biodegradable nanovaccines targeting flu, cancer, brain disorders and malaria. These discoveries simplify manufacturing processes, eliminate the need for refrigeration and vastly reduce transportation and storage costs to help fight the spread of disease at home and abroad, especially in developing countries.

The impact of our research extends well beyond innovative and exciting discoveries. The federal government relies on universities to ensure discoveries become commercial products, and Iowa State has a long tradition of working with researchers and industry to do just that. B73 hybrid corn and lead-free solder are just two examples of products that got their start on the Iowa State campus. Today, Iowa State’s new StartUp Factory helps build tomorrow’s products and companies from emerging research discoveries, an important contribution to the state’s economic growth.

A large fraction of research funding is devoted to educating graduate and undergraduate researchers. Student researchers solve difficult problems, gain technical and project management expertise, and communicate complex concepts to the public – all skills that are highly valued by employers in Iowa and elsewhere.

Through federal, state, industry and nonprofit funding, researchers all over Iowa generate new knowledge and solutions to our most pressing problems, create new products and businesses for the marketplace, and educate our emerging workforce. What’s more, investigators spend these funds to hire research staff and buy goods and services from Iowa businesses.

Research is a critical force for improving our lives now and in the future. Let’s ensure Iowa’s well-being and advance our economy by supporting federal investment in research.

• Sarah Nusser is vice president for research at Iowa State University.

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