At issue | Various articles, columns and editorials on federal budget debate
President Barack Obama has pledged to help the United States "reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the space race."
That statement was music to my ears. Federally funded, university-based scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and an important economic driver.
It has led to major scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs and transformative technologies. The Internet, MRIs, biotech drugs, GPS and smart phones are all the result of federally funded basic research.
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In just one example at the University of Kentucky, funding from the National Science Foundation back in 2002 led to a new way to produce aromas and flavors. It began in Joe Chappell's UK College of Agriculture lab, with collaborator Joseph Noel at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, as a project to understand an enzyme in tobacco plants that produces antifungal compounds.
Chappell discovered his tobacco enzyme was similar to an enzyme in oranges responsible for taste and smell. This enzyme insight turned into a promising biotech company, Allylix Inc., in 2002.
Today at UK's Coldstream Research Campus, 16 biologists and chemists feed sugar to altered yeast to make products called terpenes quickly and cheaply. Terpenes have potential commercial value as flavors and fragrances, insect repellents and anti-viral pharmaceuticals. Allylix launched its first product in 2010.
Basic research discoveries contribute to the economy — by improving efficiency, saving lives, launching companies and creating entire industries. A report by The Science Coalition, a group to which UK belongs, illustrates the connection between federal research funding and the economy by highlighting 100 companies — including two UK companies — formed as a result of discoveries from federally funded, university-based research.
The 100 companies collectively employ well over 100,000 people and have annual revenues approaching $100 billion. The companies are helping to address critical issues in medicine, technology, energy, the environment and national security — leading the way toward a healthier, more sustainable and secure future. These success stories include global industry leaders like Google, Genentech and Cisco Systems, as well as relative newcomers such as UK's own Allylix and Mersive Technologies.
Mersive Technologies was founded in 2004 and is based on research from the UK College of Engineering's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Mersive co-founder and chief technical officer Christopher Jaynes helped establish the UK center, where he secured more than $5 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and NSF to study virtual reality and novel display systems.
The company's most recent display includes a high-resolution image 25½ -feet wide and 11 feet tall. Mersive software merges multiple projectors into a seamless display of almost any size, shape and resolution. The four branches of U.S. Armed Forces, Fortune 500 corporations, museums and academic labs have used Mersive technology.
UK's start-up stats tell the larger story. For the third consecutive year, faculty, staff and student entrepreneurs have created more start-up companies than their colleagues at 19 benchmark institutions according to the 2009 report by the Association of University Technology Managers. UK ranks fourth for startups among all public institutions and sixth among all public and private institutions.
UK is also 13th among its benchmark institutions in licensing income per $10 million of research expenditures. During last fiscal year, UK received $2.2 million in gross licensing income and managed 162 licenses. Twenty new licenses were issued, including 10 new licenses to UK start-up companies. Licenses mean new products, but licenses can't happen without basic research.
Research universities often attract other research-intensive commerce — companies that want to locate close to sources of talent and technical expertise and the businesses that support them.
In 2010, the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership recruited Orthopeutics, a company from Austin, Texas. Coldstream is now home to this company, developing NEXT (a one-time spinal injection for chronic lower back pain), Lexington has new high paying jobs, and UK has a new faculty researcher, Tom Hedman, with a joint appointment in biomedical engineering and neurosurgery.
Whether it is a company, technology, medical treatment or fresh insight into an old problem, the payback on money spent on basic research is huge and can make a real difference to our future. I was energized by Obama's call to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build" other nations. However, if we are to succeed in doing this, we must make research a national priority.