Letter: As research funding changes, spirit remains the same

Letter to the Editor

It is 2018 and a time of new beginnings — among them, of course, a new semester here at the University of Minnesota. 

We closed out 2017 with good news on the research front. The University continues to be one of the nation’s leading research institutions, driving advances in knowledge that improve the health, environment and quality of life not just for Minnesotans, but for people around the world. The latest numbers, highlighted in our annual State of Research report last month, show the University ranks eighth among U.S. public research universities in research spending, with $940 million spent on research systemwide.

Federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation still fund nearly 60 percent of research at the University, but overall federal funding for research declined nearly 9 percent from 2006-16, when adjusted for inflation. Last year supporters in Congress helped NIH secure a funding boost, but many other federal agencies, including NSF, were left flat-funded, and some, such as the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, took significant cuts. Federal funding remains key to our success, and we need to convey its importance to our federal representatives. 

In this uncertain environment, the University seeks to keep innovative research going by balancing out the diminishing federal dollars with support from other sources. We have seen success from University efforts to expand public-private partnerships. Research funding from business and industry has grown to about 11 percent of all research awards due to efforts like our Office for Technology Commercialization’s MN-IP program, which simplifies the process of sponsored research by industry and has garnered nearly $65 million in sponsored research commitments since 2011.

We are also grateful for the state’s investment in research. Minnesotans, represented through their legislature, have continued to support MnDRIVE research into some of the state’s key and emerging industries, including a new effort to expand cancer clinical trials availability throughout the state, giving more residents a chance to try experimental treatments and accelerating research toward effective treatments and, hopefully, cures. 

In the end, research success isn’t just about the numbers. Take, for example, the Sustainable Healthy Cities research network led by the University’s professor Anu Ramaswami, of the Humphrey School and CFANS. It isn’t the $12 million grant fueling this network that’s so exciting, but the potential that lies in connecting universities, cities, governments, nonprofits and industry partners around the common goal of developing healthy, environmentally sustainable urban infrastructure. 

Research is about advancing knowledge, contributing to society and changing lives. This is why our Scholar’s Walk depicts great ideas, discoveries and inventions, not funding ledgers. These are testaments to the creativity, dedication and ingenuity of our research community, the faculty, staff and students driven to know more and push the boundaries of what’s possible. It’s part of what defines the University of Minnesota as a major research university.

This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Allen Levine is the vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.