Office of the President

In Print

Published in the March/April 2010 issue of Trusteeship magazine (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges)
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University Research Benefits Students...
and the Economy

By Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System


Conversations about “job creation” seem to dominate today’s political landscape. At the same time, institutions of higher education and their trustees are working hard to make a compelling case for sustained public and private support. Taking hold of the current interest in new and better jobs for American workers, universities must herald the job-generating benefits of academic research and development.

More and more of the nation’s research and development (R&D) is taking place on university campuses. In today’s innovation-driven economy, universities are particularly well positioned for success, having a critical mass of experts who are experienced in research methodology, with unfettered access to each other, the latest equipment, and important federal grants. As our nation’s focus turns to economic recovery, we must leverage these assets creatively for the benefit of our communities and our economy—and to maintain our competitive position on the global stage. In the process, we can also enrich the educational experiences of today’s college students.

Discoveries, often springing from our universities, drive the growth of new high-technology businesses that propel jobs and prosperity. We should start thinking and talking about university research as a high-growth industry in its own right. In a report released in 2009, the Wisconsin Technology Council, an independent 501(c)(3), calculates that academic research and development is a $1.1 billion industry in our state. The spending by that industry translates into more than 38,000 jobs. That’s more people than are employed by the plastics and rubber industry (32,400), or by wood-product manufacturing (23,800) in Wisconsin.

We know that taxpayers place a high value on university research that connects with their lives, by curing disease, increasing business productivity, and improving the quality of life. Explaining the more direct benefits of research investments may tap new sources of public support. Once we convey that message effectively, we must deliver on the promise. If our university research engine runs out of steam at the campus border, long-term economic benefits will be diminished. So, we must begin by finding new ways to accelerate the process for moving intellectual property downstream, from discovery to patenting to licensure to commercialization and distribution.

Research I institutions will always take the lead in this enterprise. At the same time, the drive for a more entrepreneurial culture should extend to other campuses whose faculty engage in research, so those faculty members have the opportunity to think about their academic work in terms of commercial potential and larger social and economic benefit. Nationwide, I believe we have tremendous untapped R&D potential on many of these campuses.

Some will express concern that faculty research and undergraduate education can be uncomfortable bedfellows. To be true to our primary educational mission, we do need to ensure that the basics are well taught and fully learned. But we should also recognize that an undergraduate’s engagement is deepened immensely by becoming part of a larger research project. There is simply no substitute in education—no greater learning tool—than adding to what is known in your discipline, in addition to studying it.

Given our demographics, the standard of living we have come to expect, and wage structures in this country, we must compete internationally at the high end of new knowledge and the new industries that grow out of it.

Educating and credentialing our students, and carrying out cutting-edge research, have long defined who we are. Leveraging the results of our research is something that we have not previously embraced as fully as we now must. How well we succeed at this goal will increasingly define our success as 21st-century institutions of higher learning and engines of social betterment.