Academia: Engine or Caboose?

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

The latest academic to argue that academia drives economic growth offers a long list of inventions spawned by universities but she might be missing a key ingredient. “It’s no secret that higher education serves as the engine, or driver, of the American economy, and by extension, the Virginia economy as well,” Teresa A. Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia, states in an article which appeared in the The Virginia News Letter.

“In our daily lives, we are surrounded by the fruits of this work, but we often forget that many of our everyday things grew out of university-based research,” she points out. “Countless products, technolo­gies and medications are the result of university research.”

“Here are just a few examples culled from an unofficial list compiled by U.Va.’s Patent Foundation:

• “The method for fortifying food with Vitamin D was developed at the University of Wis­consin in 1925.

• “The first general-purpose electronic com­puter was invented at the University of Penn­sylvania in 1946.

• “The development of Fluoride toothpaste that was invented by researchers at Indiana Uni­versity in 1956.

• “The first retractable, locking seat belt for cars was invented at the University of Minnesota in 1963.

• “The liquid crystal display, or LCD, that is used in numerous applications including computer monitors, television sets, and instrument pan­els, was invented at Kent State in 1967.

• “The computerized axial tomography scan (better known as the CAT scan) was invented at Georgetown University in 1973.

• “The Kentucky bluegrass hybrid, which is now the turf-grass of choice throughout much of the U.S., was invented at Rutgers in 1977” and,

•  “The drug Adenocard, commonly used in emergency rooms and emergency rescue vehicles to treat patients who develop dan­gerously high heart rates, was invented at the University of Virginia in 1985.”

What is missing is the degree to which such research, if not the university itself was funded by industrialists and individuals. For example, UVA itself gets 11 percent of its funding from state appropriations, 30 percent from tuition and fees and more than half of its operating revenue from “other” sources. In 2007, for instance, Philip Morris supported medical research at UVA to the tune of $25 million.  The cigarette manufacturer, of course, is not alone among corporate sponsors of university research. Such largesse would lead one to the conclusion that universities are not the engine of economic growth but the caboose.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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