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Federal funding drives innovation [Commentary]

The nation suffers from more than a federal deficit. Studies by congressional and scientific panels repeatedly warn of an "innovation deficit" that weakens our technological edge. Decades of strong federal support for university research and education helped America prevail in the Cold War and fueled prosperity.

When the federal government eased up on research funding in last year's across-the-board "sequestration" cuts, many scientists were shaken. Young and mid-career scientists began to question whether they can succeed here and worried about a research brain drain.

The prospect of an innovation deficit has triggered bi-partisan concern on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, held an incisive hearing Tuesday on the federal role in driving innovation.

In written testimony, I pointed out that major research institutions like the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) have evolved a collaborative style of research that is both efficient and productive. We are primed to make the most of federal research dollars.

UMD works closely with the private sector and Annapolis. We team up with other academic institutions, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore through our MPower collaboration. The complementary expertise makes us stronger together than apart. Our researchers have dramatically and successfully increased joint proposals for federal grants. We have also joined forces in commercializing laboratory success.

But there simply is no substitute for a robust federal investment in our nation's future.

I have traveled to universities in Asia, often as a member of a state trade delegation led by Gov. Martin O'Malley. In China, India, South Korea and Taiwan, we saw the impact of substantial government investments in research and educational opportunity. Universities, government and businesses work as a team. Innovation thrives in the research parks of those countries.

In America, most fundamental research — the kind that can ultimately stimulate powerful commercial applications — is conducted by university researchers, mainly with federal funding. UMD regularly partners with many major and smaller businesses to develop these promising laboratory breakthroughs into commercial applications. But even with growing corporate partnerships, the federal government currently accounts for about three-fourths of UMD's research dollars, nearly half a billion annually.

A fine-tuned collaborative research model and an extensive effort to foster a culture of innovation have enabled us to turn federal investments into highly promising new technologies ripe for development. For example, UMD researchers:

•Developed revolutionary fuel cells that offer dramatically greater efficiency. The researchers have now teamed up with an investor to develop the technology for commercial use.

•Developed materials optimized for producing medical devices and implants using 3-D printing technology. These new materials are easily customized and fine-tuned, for example to give them enhanced strength needed in cardiovascular uses.

•Developed technology that blocks attackers from snooping on cellphone conversations and revealing the phone's geographic location.

•Developed technology that dramatically improves the clarity of cellphone communications.

Student innovators develop technological advances, as well. For example, undergraduate students, spurred by the U.S. Department of Energy's international competition, the Solar Decathlon, developed a patent-pending, indoor "waterwall" that helps de-humidify summer air.

UMD doctoral graduates developed technology for customized additives for manufacturers. Their company, Pixelligent, is now thriving in Baltimore and creating new jobs.

Last week, UMD cut the ribbon on our new, state-of-the-art Physical Sciences Complex, built with state and federal support. One of the main occupants is the Joint Quantum Institute, a partnership between the university and the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). They are working, among other things, to develop the Holy Grail of modern physics: quantum computing, which promises a dramatic increase in power and speed.

The investment in this facility has had a galvanizing effect — even before equipment can be installed. The NIST partnership is intensifying; new corporate partners are coming to develop applied hardware and software; it has helped recruit top researchers and students. Federal and state investment is proving itself a powerful stimulus for innovation.

We continue to tap all possible funding sources and to benefit from enlightened leadership in Annapolis. Still, federal appropriations for education and research are irreplaceable as drivers of our nation's innovation. They are essential to the quality of life, economic vitality and security of our nation.

Wallace Loh is president of the University of Maryland, College Park. The column is adapted from testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on April 29. Mr. Loh may be reached at president@umd.edu; or @presidentloh.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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