Op-ed: Record research funding shows USU’s importance to Utah
Thousands of students are again crisscrossing our quad this week at Utah State University as fall session begins. As I watch them head to their classes under the now-changing trees, I consider our obligations to them — the skills and knowledge they’ll need, the workforce they’ll enter, the society they’ll shape. USU’s statewide commitment only deepens that obligation, and I believe that research is a key to fulfilling it.
University research often appears on institutional ledgers in dollar amounts, and that’s certainly one indication of our success. And, of course, we at Utah State are not immune to pride when we hit record numbers. In fact, we will announce this week that USU brought in a record level of funding this past year, totaling more than $220 million in sponsored awards.
Our land-grant founders wisely created a three-pronged mission — learning, discovery and engagement — where a classroom education is bolstered and supported by research and outreach efforts. At Utah State, we know how each of those activities serves to reinforce the others. It makes real educational and economic sense to pair them together.
But here’s what really matters to us — and what we hope matters to you: The impacts of our research are anything but faceless numbers. Let me assure you that Professor Ann Austin is not thinking about impersonal numbers as she researches ways to help train child-care providers to be more prepared to care safely for your children. Professor Michelle Baker is not looking at dollars as she and her iUtah team develop a massive statewide network to improve our state’s fragile water systems. And Professor Karl White knows that newborn hearing screening is a universal need and that his research and outreach efforts are changing children’s lives for the better throughout the world.
Those are just three among the many projects that received funding this year at Utah’s research universities. We and our sister-research institution, the University of Utah, recognize that the research we perform transforms lives and impacts communities in every corner of our state, every state in the nation, and in many countries across the globe.
USU research this year included: Investigating auditing standards in the national banking industry; surveying farmland owners to assess changing demographics in agriculture; testing infectious disease agents related to West Nile virus, bird flu, mad cow disease and potential bioterrorism viruses; assessing the needs of at-risk students with the goal of increasing high school graduation rates; developing strategies to counteract fat intake and address the nation’s obesity epidemic; developing new methods to reduce deadly wildlife-vehicle collisions on Utah’s roads.
Research professors in every USU college are working closely with graduate and undergraduate students on projects directly related to your quality of life and to your children’s long-term quality of life for years to come. The "spider silk" that USU Professor Randy Lewis is developing in his lab could lead to innovative uses in ligament and tendon repairs, bulletproof skin, high-tech clothing, stronger airbags and parachutes. Sound a little futuristic? That’s the world of research, and Dr. Lewis’s work has been featured in National Geographic, Discovery Channel, NOVA, Time magazine, CSI: NY and CNN — to name just a few of the believers.
University research offers value to Utah in another important realm. Our graduate and undergraduate students are cutting their teeth on the products of the future, and, more importantly, they’re learning from engaged mentors who use their projects and discoveries as educational proving grounds for our students. University research cultivates the next-generation of movers and shakers whose own innovations could someday be the world’s next "spider silk." Research directly correlates to a more qualified and skilled workforce, which means that research universities truly are building the high-tech workforce for tomorrow’s companies that want to call the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home.
Our work is far from finished. A record year of funding is not a finish line, and we’re redoubling our efforts to stay competitive. We are working to expand our graduate student population, which is the linchpin that makes our research and teaching programs work. We’ll stay at it. After all, research is in our bones — as well as being in our mission statement!
Mark McLellan is vice president for research at Utah State University.