Universities build better futures

More than half of today’s U.S. economic growth comes from innovation industries that barely existed 10 years ago. Intense global competition continues to create knowledge and new jobs in tomorrow’s industries. It’s why countries like India are investing billions to build 1,000 new universities in this decade, and it’s why U.S. states all invest in their own research universities.

What level of return on investment is Virginia getting for its contributions to university research? One objective measure is the recently released National Science Foundation survey of all national universities, reporting the amount of funds invested by the state and the amount of federal funding obtained and spent on research at each university.

The University of Virginia conducted research supported by more than $240 million in federal research funds in fiscal year 2012. The next five Virginia institutions in federal funding expenditures are Virginia Tech ($184 million), Virginia Commonwealth University ($142 million), George Mason University ($64 million), Old Dominion University ($39 million) and the College of William and Mary ($33 million).

Why is federal funding important? It represents a long-term investment, based on careful peer review and judgment by the world’s leading scientists and experts in all fields. When a Virginia faculty member wins a federal grant, it is usually in competition with about 120 other competitors from around the nation — the same level of achievement as winning a national championship in NCAA Division I football. Winning on a playing field like this provides tremendous leverage to state taxpayer dollars, bringing new funds and know-how into the state.

How good is the leverage? To find out, we compared the level of state funding for research to the level of federalresearch funding. For U.Va., the leverage is $44 of federal research funding for every $1 of state money. This provides a 44-1 return on the state’s investment. The average return on investment for the next five highest-leverage universities in the commonwealth is a healthy 16-1, with George Mason next highest at 40-1, VCU at 16-1, W&M at 13-1, ODU at 7-1 and Virginia Tech at 2-1.

Who else puts up competitive numbers in the national innovation competition? Stanford University is everyone’s perennial innovation favorite. Its leverage is 17-1.

How does this “win” pay off for the commonwealth? The research performed by Virginia universities and colleges creates knowledge. This knowledge is put to work in computer chips that power mobile phones and data centers, vaccines to prevent Lyme disease, high-speed Internet connections for rural Virginians, solar power that lowers energy bills, data analytics for businesses and color-matching software for the next Jurassic Park movie production.

Data centers that process credit card records and massive amounts of Internet data use many computer chips and get very hot, requiring significant energy to cool them. A new university innovation in chip-cooling technology will cool 10 times better than today’s technology, reducing costs to consumers here and everywhere in the world served by data centers.

Some Virginians today are becoming hesitant to take their children for hikes in the parks and forests of the commonwealth due to the rising threat of Lyme disease. New university research is developing an effective vaccine for this dangerous disease, offering citizens new confidence to safely enjoy the outdoors.

Many rural areas of the state with mountainous terrain cannot join the Internet and knowledge economy because they lack adequate bandwidth on their Internet connections — often called the “last mile” challenge. University research is constructing software defined radios that will support multiuse transceiver stations in rural areas. The results could help ensure high-speed connectivity for all, opening new jobs and new avocations to every Virginian.

Data analytics companies in Virginia cannot hire enough trained data science specialists, limiting overall economic output in the state. University research and education programs in data sciences are producing more people trained in this important field — and finding new ways to create value from the huge amounts of data being produced in every industry.

Over time, U.Va.-affiliated ventures have created 862 new jobs, with 421 of them in the region. The ventures have created342 products that are either on the market or in development. All the other research institutions in the state produce similar economic results for their regions.

What’s the value of higher education to the people of Virginia? It is winning the innovation competition — competing well on this playing field — every year. This is the only way to ensure that future Virginians will be leaders in innovation, education and job creation for the new global economy.

Investing in university research is one of the best ways to leverage our limited state funds, because it benefits everyone when we play in this competition. When Virginia research wins, we all win.

Tom Skalak is vice president for research at the University of Virginia.