Rutgers Is Key to Meeting the Challenges of a Technology Economy

By Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick
As submitted; published in New Jersey TechNews, March 2006

Wherever the technology economy is thriving, a research university is the engine of that growth. Universities not only conduct the basic research that leads to innovation but also prepare graduates to take on demanding positions in a knowledge-based economy.

As New Jersey’s comprehensive public research university, Rutgers takes seriously its responsibility to bolster the state’s position of technological leadership and meet the challenges identified in “The NJTC State of New Jersey Technology Economy Report” of September 2005.

As the report points out, New Jersey’s technology sector performed extremely well from the mid-1990s to 2000, but the state’s enviable position is not assured. Slower growth in key areas and reductions in technological research and development are jeopardizing New Jersey’s leadership position. This point was reinforced in a recent analysis by Rutgers economists James Hughes and Joseph J. Seneca of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. In their study, prepared for the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, Professors Hughes and Seneca report an alarming 14 percent drop in high-paying technology jobs in the state since 2000.

Maintaining a robust technology economy will require a coordinated effort by industry, government, and universities. Rutgers already participates in several state-sponsored collaborative ventures, most notably the Technology Centre of New Jersey, designed to increase patent production and transfer technology rapidly from the laboratory to the marketplace. Moreover, Rutgers and its fellow research universities will play a central role in meeting two of the challenges highlighted in the NJTC report: enlarging New Jersey’s federal R&D base and producing sufficient numbers of scientists and engineers to meet the demands of industry within the state.

Increasing federal funding

It is clearly a cause for concern that New Jersey does not capture its fair share of federal R&D funding. According to a report of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, the state ranks a middling 21st among the 50 states in total federal funding received. However, when funding is calculated on a per capita basis, New Jersey is embarrassingly near the bottom, tied for 40th with Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, West Virginia, Idaho, and Wyoming. Recognizing that New Jersey must do better, the Commission on Higher Education worked with Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and the Commission on Science and Technology to formulate strategies to elevate New Jersey’s ranking to 15th over the next decade.

In its report “Target Areas for Enhanced Research Funding and Milestones Toward an Improved National Ranking,” the higher education commission recommends developing high-profile, large-scale collaborative efforts in five key areas: Stem Cell Research, Biomedically Related Nanoscience, Homeland Security, Advanced Imaging Technology, and Genomics/Bioinformatics.

Rutgers will be a pivotal partner in each of these areas. Indeed, Rutgers’ exceptional strength in genomics/bioinformatics is already increasing the federal dollars secured by our faculty. In 2005, total federal funds to Rutgers amounted to $171.3 million, as compared to $107.4 million in 2000, with the largest grants going to the Rutgers-based Cell and DNA Repository, the Protein Data Bank, and the Northeast Structural Genomics Consortium.

Other projects are in earlier stages of development. The university, in partnership with UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, is beginning to create research opportunities through the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey. In addition, Rutgers’ Computational Biomedicine Imaging and Modeling Center and Institute for Advanced Materials and Devices, with its strong focus on nanomaterials, are showing initial promise.

Recent key appointments will enhance these efforts. Michael J. Pazzani recently joined Rutgers as vice president for research, coming from the National Science Foundation, and Kenneth Breslauer, dean of life sciences, was promoted to the newly created position of vice president for health science partnerships. These two outstanding scientists will play a crucial role in developing the infrastructure, recruiting the critical mass of talented researchers, and forming the multi-institutional coalitions needed to make Rutgers a nationally recognized leader in emerging technologies.

Graduating more scientists and engineers

Ensuring a steady supply of well-trained scientists and engineers is also among Rutgers’ fundamental missions. Across the country too few young people are choosing to study science and technology. In fact, only 32 percent of undergraduates in the United States receive a degree in science and engineering, compared to 66 percent in Japan. Too often, by the time American students reach college, they have already decided against pursuing careers in science and technology; others arrive lacking the educational background for these demanding fields.

Rutgers has developed numerous programs at all educational levels designed to address these shortcomings. Our newest effort is the Rutgers Science Explorer, a fully equipped science bus that will travel to middle schools around the state, allowing students to participate in hands-on activities focused on the process of discovery. The bus joins such dynamic Rutgers programs as the Math and Science Learning Center; the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering; the Science Preparation Alliance of Rutgers and Camden (SPARC); and the urban mathematics program Metromath, among many others.

Nevertheless, the number of students studying math, science, and engineering at Rutgers increased only modestly between 1998 and 2003, with the largest gains in the field of computer and information sciences. Partly, this stems from the lack of strategic investment by the state in its research universities or support for higher education in general. The net result of this situation is that each year New Jersey leads the nation as the largest exporters of high-achieving high school graduates. This brain drain robs the state of talented individuals who could make a major difference to the technology economy.

Key to success

Halting the out-migration of talented students, encouraging enrollment in science and engineering programs, and developing promising areas of research require a clear state commitment to higher education. Those states that have consistently invested in their higher education systems, such as New York and North Carolina, have seen remarkable economic gains. New Jersey, too, has in the past made major investments in higher education with excellent results. The state is still reaping the economic benefits of a 1988 bond referendum that helped transform Rutgers into a major research university, though it is increasingly clear that new investments are urgently needed. If the state provides adequate and reliable funding for education and allocates the necessary seed money for potentially lucrative research, there is no doubt New Jersey can continue to demonstrate vigorous economic growth in the years ahead.