July 31, 2013

University presidents urge closing of 'innovation deficit'

David Skorton

Deeply concerned about major federal budget cuts to research and higher education at a time when other nations are steadily increasing investments in those areas, Cornell University President David Skorton today joined 165 university presidents and chancellors in calling on leaders in Washington to close what they call the “innovation deficit.”

In an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress published as an advertisement today in Politico, Skorton and his fellow university leaders wrote that closing the innovation deficit – the widening gap between needed and actual investments in research and education – must be a national imperative. Education and research investments lead to innovation and new technologies that power the nation’s economy, create jobs, reduce the budget deficit – and ensure the United States maintains its role as a global leader.

“Throughout our history, this nation has kept the promise of a better tomorrow to each generation,” Skorton and his colleagues wrote. “This has been possible because of our economic prosperity based in large part on America’s role as global innovation leader. Failing to deal with the innovation deficit will pass to future generations the burdens of lost leadership in innovation, economic decline and limited job opportunities. We call upon you to reject unsound budget cuts and recommit to strong and sustained investments in research and education. Only then can we ensure that our nation’s promise of a better tomorrow endures.”

Economists agree that technological innovation is responsible for more than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II – and much of that innovation results from federally funded scientific research conducted at U.S. universities. Such groundbreaking research, the university leaders noted, has led to life-saving vaccines, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, touchscreens, global positioning systems, the Internet and many other advances that have improved lives and generated entire new sectors of the U.S. economy.

Over the past two decades, China, Singapore and South Korea dramatically increased their investments in research and higher education, having seen the enormous benefits such investments have had for the U.S. economy. The rate of growth of U.S. research and development investments has been outstripped by those of China, Singapore and South Korea by two to four times during that period.

The university leaders’ initiative comes as Congress faces critical budget decisions in the coming months. Annual funding bills, the debt limit and measures to eliminate or modify the deep across-the-board spending cuts forced by sequestration could all be taken up this fall. While the legislative path for those measures remains unclear, the presidents and chancellors noted that targeted investments in research and higher education can and should be made regardless of overall funding levels because they would be key sources of long-term economic growth and fiscal stability.

“Because the innovation deficit undermines economic growth it harms our nation’s overall fiscal health, worsening long-term budget deficits and debt,” Skorton and his colleagues wrote. “Investments in research and education are not inconsistent with long-term deficit reduction; they are vital to it.”

Universities represented in the letter are all members of the Association of American Universities or the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Cornell University is a member of both. The open letter, including a list of all its signers can be read at www.innovationdeficit.org.