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In Light of Budget Cuts, Universities Need Innovation and Optimism

What a roller coaster ride it's been for the nation's public research universities. Every day, radically different budget scenarios have emerged from the federal to the state levels, initiating cause for both unbridled enthusiasm and deep concern regarding the overall future of higher education.

Washington State University, in particular, has been on the receiving end of mixed messages ranging from "put the pedal to the metal" for stimulus-funded science research to "we must scale back in unprecedented levels" due to state budget cuts. Then, on Monday, April 27, President Obama spoke to the National Academy of Sciences and advanced his major theme: a renewed commitment to science.

Obama promised, spectacularly, that the United States will devote more than three percent of the Gross Domestic Product to research and development. According to the President, this will be the "largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history." He said that the commitment will exceed that of the post-Sputnik Space Race during the early 1960s.

As a research scientist whose role includes advancing all of WSU's research, I was elated to hear Obama's promise. However, almost simultaneously, WSU was notified of significant budget cuts that came as a result of a $9 billion deficit in Washington State and requires us to cut to the bone. Ironically, Obama's clear message that scientific research be a driving force in the U.S.'s recovery plan and move toward international leadership in the 21st Century, juxtaposes the harsh realities on the state front.

If we are to stabilize university research and propel successes that save lives and the economy in the future, we must rely less on the ups and downs of a state budget. Protecting our work will require us to seek new sources of funding that will likely involve new partnerships across the research and development spectrum.

On Friday, May 1, I was seated next to a state representative who asked me, "How are you folks handling our state budget?" My answer was simple: "We will indeed manage the hand we've been dealt." We have no choice. I also mentioned that we must continue to strengthen the very foundation that will drive innovative research, and foster the pipeline of outstanding students that our university produces. "Our challenge," I explained, "is to manage the budget in a manner that protects our long-term ability, built on innovative research, to contribute to the economic success of Washington State and its citizens."

Our current tough situation reminds me of former president Abraham Lincoln and the challenges he faced. In 1863, just months after a demoralizing defeat at Fredericksburg, and long before the fate of our Union was known, Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences. He understood that even in the darkest times, the U.S. must invest in "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."

Lincoln also created the land-grant research university and established the transcontinental railroad. He knew that we must do more than just survive. If we are to grow, we must look onward and upward. At WSU, we must think and act like Lincoln. Although we are facing hard times, we must not give in to pessimism--easy as that may be.

We all have a unique opportunity to reevaluate emerging developments on the state and federal levels and rethink how much we can contribute. We might need to learn a new area in our disciplines, or branch out into an entirely new field. We might need to collaborate with a new person, or many new people. In addition, we might need to be much more creative and innovative in our seeking of new resources, sponsorship, and support.

Universities like WSU must institute a similar philosophy and chart a pathway that ensures we can continue to serve as part of the solution to the problems faced by the state, nation, and world. For example, one of the biggest challenges we face involves the need to update the U.S.'s energy system (a $6 trillion enterprise) in order to adapt to the realities of global climate change and dwindling petrochemical resources.

President Obama has taken clear aim at this energy challenge in how he plans to position the federal research priorities. The American Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) have summarized the specifics of this based on Obama's speech to the NAS. WSU is well-positioned to contribute to this effort through our land-grant mission and the resultant strengths we have in energy, clean technologies, and agriculture.

Indeed, many of WSU's strongest research areas include alternative biofuels, bioprocessing, bio- and chemical catalysis, agricultural innovations that reduce fossil fuel production, power grid, and the economic and policy issues surrounding these areas. We will continue in these efforts to the best of our ability.

Overall, many of us will need to rethink our research priorities and, perhaps, find new collaborators in these inherently interdisciplinary endeavors. Recently, in light of agency policies, I've had to reexamine my own research program, which included working with a new colleague to discover new directions for our research. And while this was a challenge, I was able to adapt and discovered that learning new areas was stimulating.

In a recent Science editorial, President of the National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, asks, "How do we keep science moving?" He tells us that scientists need to become involved in "getting their stories out." Surely, this will help, but it's not enough. We must explore new revenue streams, develop new partnerships with the private sector, and work with other major research laboratories in innovative ways. We have to leverage our resources.

Evaluation, thinking, learning, collaboration, reasoned optimism, creativity: isn't that what defines great scholars?

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