EDITORIAL: University research funding is on right path

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Indiana’s public universities aren’t garnering enough research funding, and the research they’re conducting isn’t churning out high-paying jobs in quantities everyone would like, but Hoosiers shouldn’t be wringing their hands in despair.

There’s plenty to celebrate in spite of a recent ranking by the National Science Foundation that showed Indiana is in the middle of the pack compared with other states in research spending per capita at public universities.

As IBJ reported last week, the state was 22nd in public university research spending per person in 2008, the most recent year for which comparisons are available. That’s nothing to brag about, but the total of $852 million spent on research in 2008 is almost $400 million more than in 2000.

Funding grew 82 percent in that time, outpacing the national average by about 10 percent. Research spending at Indiana and Purdue universities, where almost all the research takes place, grew to $895 million in 2009.

With all that growth, moving up just four spots in the rankings over a decade ago doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. But Indiana was late to the party in making research a priority. Purdue and Indiana had a lot of catching up to do to come up with the kind of research that can translate into high-paying, private-sector jobs.

Indeed, the state’s wage data isn’t pretty. In 1998, Hoosiers made 92 percent of what the average American earns. In 2008, the number had slipped to 86 percent.

It’s discouraging that pay is headed in the wrong direction, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Counting on research to create jobs and improve wages is the right strategy, but it’s not a quick fix. It takes years for the payoff, unlike snagging a factory that almost instantly can employ thousands earning a good living wage.

University-based research isn’t the only path to new jobs, but it’s an important tool in the state’s arsenal. Maintaining the state’s steady improvement over the last decade is key.

Things couldn’t be much better on the private-sector front. Indiana ranks No. 4 nationally on research spending per capita provided by industry. Public-sector funding is another matter. Indiana ranked 26th per capita in state support and No. 31 in federal support.

Being fiscally responsible in harsh economic times limits what the state can do, but there should be no wavering in our commitment. To see what our investment in research can return, look no further than Endocyte Inc., the cancer-fighting firm borne of Purdue research that is about to go public with an $86 million stock offering.

Indiana’s improvement in research funding over a decade is worth celebrating. Let’s keep things headed in the right direction.•

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