October 13, 2008 | last updated March 28, 2012 9:29 am

Why Science Funding Matters To Worcester

The next President must solve tough problems — starting with the serious economic crisis the U.S. is facing. At first glance, science would seem to have little to do with the financial crisis. Why is science part of the solution to economic problems? And why is this state uniquely equipped to benefit from that solution?

The Massachusetts economy is one of the most R&D intensive economies in the United States based on a diverse portfolio of technologies. It benefits from one of the most concentrated investments of public and private funds in the world — creating new knowledge, turning it into new products and services, and in the process, new jobs.

To that end, as residents of Massachusetts listen to presidential and other candidates for federal office, they should ask about candidates' positions on federal funding for basic scientific research. Basic research is critical to Massachusetts' — and the nation's — economic health.

Economic Driver

Why is basic research important to the economy? The source of much innovation that drives the economy is university-based scientific research. And the funding for most of that research comes from the federal government through institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation. They make direct grants to key researchers at the universities, where more than half the nation's basic research is conducted.

Two examples will suffice to make the connection. The U.S. biotech industry, a $70 billion engine of growth, would not exist without a long background of basic research. The path-breaking findings that made recombinant DNA technology feasible were discovered at leading U.S. universities. University technology transfer overall adds billions of dollars to the economy each year. In 2006 alone, 553 new startup companies were launched as a result of university technology transfer.

In Massachusetts, the state economy benefits profoundly from a dense concentration of colleges and universities.

The state's research universities employ tens of thousands of people and provide a total regional economic impact of several billion dollars. Massachusetts also benefits because these institutions attract talent and economic opportunity beyond their campuses.

Many companies dependent on R&D have located in the state because of the world class research being conducted at universities here.

Some examples:

More than 70 energy companies and 150 life sciences companies are located in close proximity to MIT.

In 2007, Worcester Poly-technic Institute opened Gateway Park, which serves as the focal point for the university's graduate-level education and research in the life sciences. At full build-out it will showcase Worcester's vibrant and growing life sciences and bioengineering industries.

The University of Massachusetts in the last two fiscal years has received several hundred million dollars in federal funding to support important research efforts across the state.

It is critical that voters in Massachusetts and throughout the country understand where candidates stand on this issue, and that the importance of university-based basic research extends beyond the laboratory and the campus and into their pocketbooks.

Jennifer Grodsky is president of The Science Coalition, a nonprofit organization representing 47 of the nation's public and private research universities, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute. For more information visit: www.sciencecoalition.org.

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