January 10, 2014

What it takes for America to compete

By Michael Cassidy

Published in The Atlanta Business Chronicle

Now that Congress has approved a bipartisan budget deal, another discussion can resume in Washington — one that profoundly influences our nation’s future competitiveness.

The discussion involves renewing legislation to increase federal investment in universities to generate more breakthroughs in science and technology. The legislation, called America COMPETES, would also do more to get new inventions and discoveries out of the labs and into the marketplace.

The America COMPETES Act was first passed in 2007 after an eye-opening report showed how much the United States had loosened its longstanding grip as a global innovation leader. The legislation had extraordinary bipartisan support, as did its reauthorization in 2010.

But it was never fully funded, and so the aims of America COMPETES are still aspirational. Federal spending on research and development has trended downward, from 5 percent of the total federal budget in 1990 to 3.8 percent in 2013 – a historic low. Meanwhile, China, Korea and other competing nations are dramatically increasing their investments in research and innovation.

Americans worry about the decline. Three out of four of us doubt that the United States will be the world’s leader in science and technology in 2020; a third believe China will hold that distinction. Other public polls reflect an overwhelming desire to reclaim our momentum in pioneering discovery.

At this point, the path Congress will take is unknown. What is clear is how crucial this legislation is to our country – and how effective federal investment in American ingenuity can be.

In bygone eras, big-company research labs provided much of America’s innovation horsepower. Bell Labs, Xerox, RCA and others continuously broke new ground in technology for a changing world. Big Pharma developed the medicines of the future.

But corporate R&D has shrunk considerably, and today only 19 percent of all basic research in the U.S. takes place in industry, according to the National Science Foundation. Business strategies have shifted to buying up innovation developed by someone else.

That someone else is typically a university scientist. More than half (53 percent) of basic research happens on our nation’s college campuses. Which means the stakes are now higher than ever for universities to explore, advance and invent the drugs and devices the world needs and wants.

And the universities are quite good at this. A report released this fall by The Science Coalition, a collaborative of more than 50 top universities, highlighted 100 early-stage companies that trace their roots to federally funded university research. These companies represent more than 7,000 jobs, many of them paying high wages. Eight out of 10 launched with less than $5 million in federal research investment.

A few of the companies profiled in the report are here in Georgia, including Clearside Biomedical, a spinout of Emory and Georgia Tech. Clearside’s invention is ingenious – a needle just 1 centimeter long, engineered to deliver medication to a tiny space in the back of the eye, where diseases that threaten eyesight often occur.

Something so small has enormous potential, which is why the world of ophthalmology is closely watching Clearside. And Clearside is just one of dozens of companies launched out of the labs of Georgia universities each year.

Launching more of these companies, and creating more high-value jobs, comes down to simple mathematics. The more we invest strategically in university research, the more we’ll have to show for it. America COMPETES should be fully funded so that America truly can compete in our global economy.