Scholarship essential for human progress

Photo of Daniel Reed
(Photo: Tom Jorgensen/University of Iowa)

If the phrase "academic research" brings to mind tweedy professors poring over rare manuscripts or bespectacled scientists in lab coats examining glass beakers — you’re probably not alone. Nor is the stereotype entirely wrong; I’ve certainly dressed the part of rumpled geek during my career, to the occasional chagrin of my family.

The prolonged and often unglamorous work of studying how social, economic and political forces shaped history, or how the universe operates down to the subatomic level and out at the furthest edges of space can seem mysterious, tedious and irrelevant to people outside of academia.

However, basic research and scholarship expand the collective body of human knowledge, even if they don’t always or immediately lead to the development of a new gadget, a medical treatment or a new public policy. They are about understanding the physical world around us; plumbing the mysteries of biology and life; and illuminating the human condition. Intellectual inquiries begin with a prepared and open mind, willing to follow the unexpected, wherever it may lead.

Very often, they lead to world-shaping change — basic research has fueled most of the technological, scientific and medical breakthroughs over the past 70 years. More than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II can be traced to science‐driven technological innovation. That’s a stunning statement about the power and strategic national importance of academic research and scholarship.

The computer industry, Internet and smartphones; the biomedical revolution with its continuing flow of vaccines and lifesaving drugs; the advance of diagnostics such as the MRI; and most of the technologies that have helped make the U.S. military the world’s most effective fighting force, all had their start in federally funded basic research.

At the University of Iowa, we’re developing virtual environments to test military gear to make soldiers safer and more effective on the battlefield, improving flood prevention strategies, and creating personalized medicine that delivers treatments unique to each patient.

Scholarship and creativity in the arts and humanities also enrich our lives and inform our society. The Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the United States, has produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners, four recent U.S. poets laureate, and numerous other major award winners. The UI’s world class Center for the Book developed the special paper that now sits beneath the Charters of Freedom in their encasements at the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Just as the crops produced by Iowa’s farmers require soil, water and sunlight, research and scholarship require investment, diligence and patience. By its nature, research is a long game; every inspiration is followed by years, sometimes decades, of perspiration. Your new smartphone is based in part on research ideas from 30 years ago, and the newest drug began with a laboratory discovery that triggered a decade of pharmaceutical company development and testing before it reached the market.

Almost all basic research and scholarship is conducted by universities, and the federal government is by far its largest single supporter. Industry relies on the stream of new research ideas and educated students emerging from universities to drive its development of new products and services. This virtuous cycle, where federally funded university research and newly trained students feed private sector innovation, and the resulting innovation and economic growth has made the U.S. the envy of the world.

Unfortunately, federal funding for university research has been eroding for a decade, while other countries, most notably in Asia, have expanded their support dramatically. Concurrently, U.S. higher education is undergoing tectonic shifts, with new expectations for societal engagement and educational accessibility while facing their own financial challenges.

Working together, we must re-imagine how we support and sustain research and scholarship in the U.S. and in Iowa. That means telling our story more clearly and more effectively; addressing societal needs more directly; collaborating across disciplines more strategically; and partnering with our cities, our region, and our state more aggressively.

Our health and prosperity, our global competitiveness, and our national security depend on it. It’s why I’m looking forward to participating in the Jan. 26 WorldCanvass interview on “Research to Real Life,”  where we will discuss research and its impact. I invite you to join us from 5 to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday at FilmScene in downtown Iowa City. More information can be found at http://international.uiowa.edu/worldcanvass.

Daniel A. Reed is the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and economic development.

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