The University of Arizona

UA Research VP: Universities’ Basic Research Critical to Innovation

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | July 11, 2012

Leslie Tolbert, UA senior vice president for research, made a case for the nation's research universities during a recent visit to Capitol Hill.

Leslie Tolbert, UA senior vice president for research, addresses the Committee on Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.
Leslie Tolbert, UA senior vice president for research, addresses the Committee on Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.
Leslie Tolbert joined other university senior research officers in addressing the importance of research universities.
Leslie Tolbert joined other university senior research officers in addressing the importance of research universities.

Without the basic research done at our nation’s universities, many of today’s most important innovations would not be possible. That was the message from Leslie Tolbert, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president for research, who recently addressed the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology about the value of research universities.

Tolbert joined senior research officers from Duke University, Auburn University and Texas A&M, as well as Chad Holliday, lead author of a recent report by the National Research Council, titled “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security,” in addressing the committee in Washington, D.C.

The presenters discussed the findings of the NRC report, which was produced in response to a request from Congress to identify the top 10 recommended actions that should be taken by federal and state governments, research universities and others to ensure American research universities maintain excellence in research and help the U.S. remain competitive.

Those recommendations include creating a strategic investment program for critical research initiatives, strengthening university-industry partnerships and increasing state support of public research universities, among others.

Tolbert’s testimony focused primarily on the importance of basic, or fundamental, research as the “seed corn” in the research and development process.

“Federal and state agencies must understand and support the absolutely critical role played by university-based fundamental research in the continuum from fundamental research through applied research and development to new products in the marketplace,” she told the committee.

In an interview, Tolbert said that public conversations about research often focus on applied research – for example, cures for diseases – more than on fundamental, or basic, research – for example, revealing the basic functions of cells – that paves the way for applied research. That’s because the applications are easier to understand, she said.

“But we couldn’t do applied research without basic, or fundamental research. Applied research is built on fundamental research,” Tolbert said. “The thing that defines fundamental research is that we don’t know up front how it will be used.”

Much of today’s critical basic research is conducted at research universities like the UA, which spends more than $610 million a year on research and ranks in the top 20 public research universities in the nation in research size, Tolbert said.

“Over the years, private companies have cut back on fundamental research and put more focus on the final stages of research that make useful and marketable products. That leaves universities and national laboratories to do the front-end basic research,” she said.

Tolbert’s June 27 testimony coincided with the 150th anniversary celebration of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the nation’s land-grant universities and endowed them, in part, with a research mission.

Her presentation served as an important reminder of the key role of research universities, even as federal and state support for that research has seen declines, said Shay Stautz, UA associate vice president for federal relations.

“It is important for us to address this at a national level because we are a national-level major research university, ready and able to conduct the research that federal agencies determine to be important to the national interest,” Stautz said. “The U.S. Congress sets the funding levels for these agencies and therefore must be engaged to understand its impact and import.”    

Said Stautz: “It is now up to me and my federal relations colleagues to follow-up on the testimony and visits by urging the Congress to continue to support federal research funding and to be receptive to the recommendations of the NRC report."