Although not ranked No. 1 yet, one University of Minnesota team recently made the most impressive move of any top 20 school in the country.
The ranking has nothing to do with the Athletic Department. This fast-rising U contingent is playing for even bigger stakes than an NCAA championship. The academic team at the U recorded $683 million in research and development expenditures in 2008, according to a recently released report from the National Science Foundation. That represented a 9.5 percent increase over 2007, making it the largest percentage gain of any of the top 20 research institutions. The news is a positive development in the strategic push by U President Robert Bruininks to establish the school as one of the top three public research universities in the world. Since 2004, the U's growth in R&D investment in science and engineering is the third-highest among top public schools and the fourth-highest among all schools. In total expenditures, the U currently ranks ninth nationally, just as it has the two previous years.
"This means well for innovation for the state, innovation that will help quality of life nationally and internationally," said Tim Mulcahy, the U's vice president for research. "It means we're doing what we should be doing as a major research institution."
Indeed, the U should be an economic engine for the state, both by educating its citizens and creating conditions for economic growth. And the increased investment couldn't come at a better time because it translates into job creation in the face of the Great Recession. The impact should be even bigger in subsequent years, as the basic R&D is turned into practical applications and then marketed and sold. Already this year, revenues from patent and licensing activity spiked 10 percent to $95 million.
"What we're doing today, the major impact will probably be a couple of years down the road," said Mulcahy. "The thing that is important to note is we are having an impact today based on the things we did several years ago."
That should send a direct message to state lawmakers facing a busted budget that while R&D funding may be a tempting target to cut, it would be the equivalent of eating your seed corn.
Even without cuts, the U will struggle to maintain its current pace, which was bolstered by $130.6 million in likely one-time stimulus funds.
And the competition isn't likely to rest, especially across the border, where the University of Wisconsin-Madison currently ranks No. 2 and is trying to overtake the top-ranked school, the University of California, San Francisco. Wisconsin isn't the only Big Ten competition. The U plays in a highly competitive league, with Michigan (4), Ohio State (7) and Penn State (8) ranked higher in total R&D investment.
And the competition from Wisconsin isn't limited to the university, said Mulcahy, who was recruited from UW-Madison to lead the U's efforts.
"Wisconsin as a state has done far more to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that can really support the innovation that comes out of the university, help convert it to jobs and products, and help keep them in the state," he said. "I'm afraid the business climate, in terms of incentives for small companies to either relocate or start up here, are not as strong here as in Wisconsin. So even though both states have strong public research universities, I think the impact in Wisconsin is greater because the field is more fertile there in terms of state public policy around job creation and entrepreneurship. And that's something we need to correct in Minnesota."
Those about to gather in St. Paul for the legislative session should heed that advice. The U's expenditures are an investment, which if harnessed effectively can create jobs and a better life for Minnesotans.