KU chancellor joins other university leaders in call for more research funding

Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little joined more than 175 university leaders from across the country this week in urging the president and Congress to restore federal spending on research, innovation and higher education.

A letter signed by the leaders appeared Wednesday as an advertisement in the print edition of Politico, a national outlet for political news. The campaign is led by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.

Gray-Little said the organizations reached out to her and other university presidents, asking them to make a statement about the “erosion of funding for innovative research” and the impact federal spending cuts could have on the future of the U.S. economy.

Gray-Little found the decision to sign the letter “straightforward,” though doing so puts her, along with the other signers, in the tumultuous arena of federal budget politics.

Even so, Gray-Little said she felt it was consistent with her role as chancellor to make a statement on issues that could affect the university’s ability to teach students and generate knowledge.

The letter argues that “the answer to our nation’s fiscal woes must include sustained strategic federal investments in research and student financial aid.” Pointing out that more than half of the country’s economic growth since World War II can be attributed to technological innovation, the letter says that funding research is key to long-term growth and federal deficit reduction.

It also cites concerns about the rate of spending on research and development in the United States compared to that of other countries.

For instance, from 2008 to 2009, the first year of the global recession, U.S. spending on research and development declined slightly while China’s spending increased 27 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. In the 20 years before that, U.S. spending on research grew by 5.8 percent a year while China’s spending grew by 21.9 percent.

Those figures account for spending across the economy. The difference between growth rates in government spending by the United States and its economic rivals is yet more striking.

Between 2000 and 2009, U.S. government spending on research and development grew by 45 percent while South Korea’s government spending grew by 250 percent and China’s grew by 330 percent.

The letter calls these disparities in spending growth rates an “innovation gap” between the United States and its global counterparts. But for the moment, the United States is still the world leader in spending on research, at least in pure dollar terms.

In 2009, the country as a whole spent more than $400 billion on research and development. That’s $246 billion more than what China spent and more than $100 billion more than what the entire European Union spent.

The federal government has been reducing research funding, partly through automatic cuts known as the sequester, while other countries have increased their spending. Gray-Little said that if the trend continues, the United States could get left behind.

It’s too soon to say exactly how the federal budget cuts have and will affect research at KU specifically. The annual accounting of funding for last year’s research projects is still underway. Yet it’s clear that “the pool of funding will be down for everyone” across the country, Gray-Little said.

In the letter, Gray-Little and her peers expressed worry over the economic future of the country. Reduced research investment could reduce the country’s ability to produce new technology and scientific breakthroughs that ultimately benefit the economy as a whole.

“Federal funding for research is declining, and federal funding has made the difference in the growth of this country,” Gray-Little said.