Call for US R&D ‘surge’ through ‘heartland’ universities

Universities have the right track record on place-making and innovation, argues Brookings Institution fellow and report co-author

January 3, 2020

A “massive R&D surge” via federal investment in US universities could start addressing the economic and social chasm between “superstar” innovation cities and heartland America, according to an author of a major report.

A recent Brookings Institution and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report calls for the US government to run a contest to select between eight and 10 up-and-coming “growth centres” in “heartland” cities to shift the benefits of technology and innovation beyond the handful of coastal metropolitan areas that currently dominate the field.

The report warns that the US’ “high levels of territorial polarisation are now a grave national problem”: for its economy (lowering productivity and meaning a loss of innovation jobs to China); society (as millions are excluded from the benefits of “superstar metro areas”) and politics (where “geographical cleavages” are reflected in “the current populist revolt”).

Increased regional inequality is “not a one-off effect of US tech history”, but a “structural aspect of innovation economies in general” as technology and innovation clusters in cities with research strength and large numbers of highly skilled graduates, said Mark Muro, policy director of the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy programme and a co-author of the report.

“There’s a global scope to this problem; fortunately there’s also a global scope to the recognition of university-based technology development as one response,” he told Times Higher Education.

The report is relevant to the UK, where the new Conservative government led by Boris Johnson has pledged a big injection of research funding and a major effort to boost the economic performance of the English regions.

Notably, the US report argues that market orthodoxy will not counter regional divergence, meaning a “massive federal effort” is needed; and that federal investment in research universities, rather than any other form of research organisation, should be the mechanism to drive change in regions hit by deindustrialisation.

The report notes that the five top innovation metropolitan areas in the US have accounted for more than 90 per cent of the nation’s growth in the innovation sector (ranging from pharmaceutical manufacturing and aerospace products to software publishing and data services) between 2005 and 2017. These top five areas include Boston and Silicon Valley, where it was federal investment in university research and in the “defence knowledge base” that played “an important – if not decisive – role in helping them attain the critical mass of innovation resources to become full-blown innovation stars”, the report says.

The report states that its programme for 10 metropolitan areas would cost the federal government $100 billion (£76 billion) over 10 years in direct research and development funding, workforce development spending, tax and regulatory benefits, business financing and infrastructure spending.

Mr Muro said that universities had a well-established “track record” in establishing innovation ecosystems and in “place-making”, hence more than two-thirds of the funding recommended in the report would come via a “massive R&D surge into universities”.

The report identifies 35 candidate cities to host the 10 potential growth centres, located across 19 states, mostly in the “Great Lakes, Upper South and Intermountain West” regions. The cities identified include Madison, Wisconsin (home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison), Columbus, Ohio (home to Ohio State University) and Syracuse, New York (home to Syracuse University).

But how would spending more money on relatively big cities with research universities help smaller American cities or towns blighted by the loss of industries and jobs?

Selection criteria in the growth centres contest could “specifically require inclusive development as part of the assessment”, along with “inclusive skill development” and regional improvements in housing and transportation, said Mr Muro. One effect of the contest would be to build far greater economic collaboration between universities and state and local governments, he argued.

Building up 10 hubs in the heartland would have “some spillover benefits to other kinds of community nearby”, Mr Muro said. While stimulating economic recovery in heartland America would require “other responses” in addition, “we think this a solid place to begin”, he added.

Will the report’s vision of large-scale federal intervention – not favoured in the current Republican party – have to wait for a change in the political wind?

Mr Muro said he and the other authors had fielded “almost as many inquiries to date from Republicans [as] Democrats” following the report’s publication. The recommendations are “targeting mostly red [Republican] states or many red states”, there is a “bipartisan history” on research and development initiatives, and many on the “centre-right” are concerned by the economic challenge posed to the US by China, he added.

While the report authors are “not holding our breath for an immediate action of a $100 billion programme, we actually are not entirely hopeless about this getting a good hearing and response in the next few years”, he continued.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Call for US R&D ‘surge’ through ‘heartland’ HE

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