The United States is losing ground to its global competitors in terms of scientific research and innovations, and it is up to universities and colleges other than the traditional “big research institutions” to step up and help stem the tide.
That was the word from Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo, who spoke Wednesday, April 5, to more than 100 scientists, policy makers, economic developers and investors who gathered on campus for the second annual I7 Futures Forum. The meeting, designed to foster a discussion of how science can shape the future and provide opportunities for economic growth for Western North Carolina, takes its name from the themes of imagination, ideas, insight, ingenuity, innovation, invention and inspiration.
“The big research universities should continue to do the kind of pure, basic research that they have been doing,” Bardo said. “For those of us in regional universities, however, the emphasis should be on applied research and development. We need to encourage universities to find ways to link with business, and we need to encourage businesses to find ways to link with universities.”
Identifying linkages between universities and the business sector is, in part, what is driving Western’s Millennial Initiative, a comprehensive regional economic development strategy that includes last year’s addition of 344 acres of property adjacent to the main campus. University officials are working on a plan to develop the property in ways that will enable Western to engage in public-private partnerships enhancing educational opportunities for students in high-tech programs and increasing the ability of faculty to conduct cutting-edge research, while simultaneously promoting economic development.
Bardo’s talk focused on preliminary findings from a major project he has undertaken with Paul Evans, director of WCU’s Institute for the Economy and the Future, examining issues of higher education and economic development. Their research indicates that funding for applied research and development can have a significant impact on the economy of the local regions surrounding institutions conducting that type of research and development.
“Regional universities such as Western must develop the capacities, policies and approaches that will enable them to attract the federal research and development funding for the purpose of expanding the quality of life and improving the economic base,” Bardo said. “We need to be looking at changing the way that some of the federal funding for research can be redirected to places where it can have an immediate economic impact.”
One of those places could be Western, which is located “dead center in an emerging super-region that stretches from Birmingham, Ala., to Raleigh, N.C., encompassing Upstate South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee,” he said.
During a luncheon address, Bob McMahan, the governor’s senior adviser for science and technology, reminded the group that human capital is the key to economic prosperity. “We often are focusing not on the battery or the power source,” McMahan said. “Human capital development is one of our greatest challenges. It’s the battery. It’s the power behind the development of science and technology.”
And the key to human capital development, he said, is education. “There is a very strong correlation between economic attainment and educational attainment,” McMahan said. “The bottom line is that knowledge is the primary influencer of economic growth going forward. That is incontrovertible.”
The daylong I7 Futures Forum, which focused on the topic of molecular bioscience, also included sessions on WNC hardwoods, forensic sciences, WNC biodiversity and academic business interface.