Mark A. Nordenberg: We must invest in innovation to perpetuate Pittsburgh's progress

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The rise of the Pittsburgh region's economy, which "bottomed out" in 1983 with an unadjusted unemployment rate of 18.2 percent, has been the subject of a recent series of enlightening articles in the business section of the Post-Gazette. This economic resurgence also was highlighted, in a far more condensed fashion, in a holiday e-card from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. The card noted that Pittsburgh now has the fifth best-performing economy in the country and recently won three most-livable-city titles.

How did we do it? The e-card answered that question in a straightforward way: "Thirty years ago, Pittsburgh created a recipe for regional prosperity. We baked innovation, technology and knowledge into five industry sectors ... creating a diverse and balanced economy. Today, innovation, technology and knowledge flavor pretty much everything we do."

The e-card went on to note that "key ingredients in our regional prosperity recipe" include 120 corporate and federal research and development centers, $1 billion in annual university R&D expenditures and the production of "36,000 graduates from regional colleges and universities annually, comprising one of the nation's most educated work forces."

Innovation also has been identified as a critical factor in our country's quest to remain economically competitive. A report released last summer by the National Research Council focused on the critical relationship between research universities and the future of America. Its recipe for national prosperity is almost identical to the PRA's regional recipe. The NRC noted that America is driven by innovation, that innovation is fueled by educated people and that the "nation's primary source of both new knowledge and graduates with advanced skills continues to be our research universities."

The NRC report went on to describe the perilous environment in which research universities now operate. Among the critical threats to our global competitiveness are cuts to federal funding for university research even while other countries have increased their support -- hoping to develop research universities that can achieve the quality and impact of ours -- and the erosion of state support for higher education, support that had been declining for two decades and was cut even more drastically during the Great Recession.

While further reductions in government support for these engines of innovation pose a major national concern, the impact of such cuts threaten to be even more destructive in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh because university programs of research and education, as underscored by the PRA, have been central to the development of our 21st-century state and regional economies.

Pennsylvania is home to four of the 62 members of the Association of American Universities -- Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh -- an organization widely regarded as comprising the strongest research universities in North America. Only two states, California and New York, have more members.

But the economic impact of our state and local research universities is even more pronounced. Pennsylvania is the only state with two universities ranked among the top five by the National Science Foundation based on total federal science and engineering research and development support, with Penn at No. 4 and Pitt at No. 5.

In Pittsburgh, the strengths of Pitt and CMU have made this region an internationally respected center of cutting-edge academic work. Our university partnership remains unique in the world of higher education, giving our home region a distinct competitive advantage, and our research has helped propel virtually all of the technology-based regional economic development initiatives launched in the past three decades.

As was noted by the NRC report, particularly with the dismantling of many corporate research centers that contributed so much to 20th-century economic growth, university research is essential to "encourage the innovation that leads to high-quality jobs, increased incomes and security, health and prosperity for our nation." And Pennsylvania's need to support university research was highlighted by the Governor's Advisory Commission on Post-Secondary Education, which released its own report in mid-November.

One of the four key goals advanced in the state report is the enhancement of Pennsylvania's economic vitality and ability to compete globally. Given all that is known about economic development in the innovation economy of the 21st century, neither the commission's general call for support of "innovative investigation that promotes knowledge in all fields of inquiry, especially in science, engineering, energy and medicine," nor its specific recommendation that leaders from the state's major research universities be assembled to advise "on the types of financial support appropriate to maintain and promote research at a level to sustain Pennsylvania's place in the global market" was at all surprising.

Whether university research will receive support sufficient for it to remain a driver of future economic prosperity will become clearer in the days and weeks ahead -- as our elected representatives in Washington continue to deal with sequestration and other federal funding issues and as our elected representatives in Harrisburg craft a state budget for the next fiscal year.

An abandonment by government, at either level, of what the NRC report called "the unique partnership that has long existed among the nation's research universities, the federal government, the states and philanthropy" could derail this region's 30-year history of economic transformation, which has been recently chronicled and rightfully celebrated as we enter the new year.


Mark A. Nordenberg is the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.


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