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The Role of a Preeminent University in the National Economy

Robert RichardsonThe state of research at Cornell remains vibrant and vital. I could discuss the remarkable new life science research buildings sprouting up on the campus, giving my usual upbeat report about this and other extraordinary research endeavors at Cornell. Instead, I would like to turn to an issue of significant national importance: the role of the research university in the nation’s economic health.

Last fall, I participated in a National Academies of Sciences Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century. We wrote a major report, Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.). The report contains a detailed analysis of the degradation of the United States’ competitive position and some suggested remedies.

The following are only a few examples of our weakening “competitiveness indicators,” quoted from the report:

  • The U.S. is a net importer of high-technology products, with the trade balance in high-technology manufacturing goods having shifted from a surplus of $54 billion in 1990 to a deficit of $50 billion in 2001.
  • In a recent period, low-wage employers such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart created 44 percent of the new jobs, while high-wage employers created only 29 percent of the jobs.
  • U.S. scheduled airlines currently outsource significant portions of their aircraft maintenance to China and El Salvador.
  • In 2005 American investors put more new money in foreign stock funds than in domestic stock portfolios.
  • In 2004 China overtook the United States, becoming the leading exporter of information-technology products.
  • The United States ranks only 12th among developed countries in the number of broadband connections per 100 inhabitants.

The report recommends actions that should be taken by U.S. industry and federal agencies, but much of the fundamental remediation needs to occur in our K-12 schools and universities. Our scientific workforce and teaching corps are woefully inadequate, and our university base for performing basic research is underfunded. Many thoughtful economists estimate that about half of U.S. economic growth since World War II has been the result of technological innovation following research. Without a significant renaissance in our own national ability to innovate, the United States is likely to fall further behind other nations.

At Cornell we intend to make significant contributions to the solution of one of the most difficult national problems, which has special national urgency: the development of new energy sources. We have initiated a broad range of new programs, ranging from the development of biofuels to fundamental studies of catalysis at surfaces of fuel cells. The nascent studies in energy research can be found in most of our colleges.

With a unique range of research—in agriculture; ultrahigh technology; medicine; and humanistic, social, and economic studies—across 16 colleges and divisions, Cornell will continue to make distinctive, tangible contributions of far-reaching national importance.

Robert C. Richardson

Vice Provost for Research

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