University research delivers surprising real-world benefits

Learn more about J.H. Cullum Clark.
J.H. Cullum Clark
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

From seat belts to COVID-19 vaccines, U.S. university research has generated enormous and often unsung innovations that save lives and improve human well-being.  

America’s universities and academic medical centers play a vital role in powering the nation’s leadership in transformational science and fueling prosperity in cities across the country. So at a time when public confidence in the higher education sector has fallen to low levels, America urgently needs its “eds and meds” institutions to strengthen their research and innovation work and restore trust.  

Today’s challenges call for ambitious initiatives to reform and modernize the nation’s universities, a new George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative report argues.

Strong eds and meds research promotes private-sector innovation because business R&D often depends on basic science done at universities. More than 73% of papers cited in private-sector patents originate from eds and meds research, a widely cited study by three technology and patenting experts showed. 

Business-sector innovation is becoming more dependent on university research, since eds and meds institutions conduct more and more of the nation’s basic research. Private companies do just 15% of U.S. basic science research today, down from 30% in the 1950s, based on National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics data. Non-federal eds and meds institutions now do about half, up from 35% in the 1950s. 

Eds and meds research has produced countless products with vast benefits for human well-being: 

  • Automobile seatbelts (Cornell University) 
  • Fluoride toothpaste (Indiana University) 
  • GPS technology (MIT) 
  • Beta-carotene-rich golden rice (Louisiana State University) 
  • Cancer drug Cisplatin (Michigan State University) 
  • HIV/AIDS drugs Zerit and Emtriva (Yale University and Emory University) 
  • Calcium supplement Citracal (University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center) 
  • First gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Nationwide Children’s Hospital) 
  • Pacemakers (University of Minnesota) 
  • Genome sequencing techniques (Tufts University) 
  • The spreadsheet (Harvard University) 
  • Web browsers (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) 
  • The Google search engine (Stanford University) 

COVID-19 vaccines based on messenger RNA technology – one of humanity’s towering scientific achievements – resulted from research conducted over several decades at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of British Columbia, and Germany’s University of Mainz. 

University research has also played a pivotal role in the emergence of artificial intelligence  based on large language models – contrary to a narrative that virtually all significant AI work has taken place within the business sector. AI innovation has followed a trajectory similar to other breakthrough technologies: Researchers at New York University, the University of Toronto, and other institutions did foundational work that made today’s LLMs possible, and companies like Google and OpenAI have led the way in developing commercial applications for this technology. 

Universities, meanwhile, are building their AI research footprint. Arizona State University became one of the first universities to develop AI applications to strengthen teaching in January, when it announced a partnership with OpenAI. 

U.S. metro areas with strong research universities outperform most others for private-sector R&D investment, venture capital investment, and overall innovation, the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative report shows. They also top other metros for income and upward mobility among people living there – including for people without a bachelor’s degree.  

However, federal R&D investment – the main source of funding for university research – has fallen steadily over several decades as a share of the economy, with particularly sharp declines since 2009.  

Academic medical centers have come to rely more and more on patient care revenues to fund the nation’s basic life science research, so the cost increasingly falls on patients and private-sector employers. Unless Congress reverses the long-term downtrend in research funding, it will likely stunt the pace of innovation in America and undermine the nation’s global leadership in science and technology. 

America needs to take these steps to renew its commitment to science and technology leadership:  

  • Raise federal R&D investment at least 50% as a share of GDP. 
  • Shift research funding programs to promote blue-sky transformational science and reverse the trend toward low-risk, overly incremental research. 
  • Strengthen university technology commercialization and knowledge transfer capabilities. 
  • Build local innovation ecosystems, including focused innovation districts, across the country. 

Science and technology advances remain the surest path to faster economic growth and rising opportunity for all Americans. Eds and meds institutions play an irreplaceable role in making them happen.