America must invest in research universities — or get left behind

(The Week, June 5, 2012)

By Bill Frist, M.D.

Gone are the days when Bell Labs was the nation’s prime innovator. Today, we must rely on universities — and those universities need our help

Innovation gave birth to Microsoft, FedEx, Xerox, Starbucks, Apple, and thousands more businesses that have powered America’s growth, making us the largest economy in the world. But today, against the backdrop of slow growth and high unemployment, we are increasingly being challenged around the world by nations threatening our innovation edge. We were not always the most innovative nation in the world, nor will we necessarily be in the future. To remain on top, we need to take smart action. The fight of the future will be over jobs, and America’s deadliest weapon is innovation.

And yet, the U.S. is continually falling further behind in K-12 education and being overtaken in new patent applications. The last several decades have seen a shift away from the private sector in performance of basic research, the wellspring for innovation.

Research universities form the sturdy backbone of American innovation.

That’s where our research universities come in. These institutions form the sturdy backbone of American innovation. They provide the crucible for ideas and talent. These universities are powerful partners for businesses. The days are gone when most basic research was conducted in the Bell Labs of the country. This vital element of discovery and knowledge has increasingly shifted to our research universities

My own field of medicine has been revolutionized over my professional career with advances generated directly out of these research universities. Nuclear isotopes, MRI and CAT scans, and artificial organ assist devices have originated from these institutions. Today, their cutting-edge work in robotics and limb replacement gives new hope to returning veterans. But before the 1980s we were not the world leader in biomedical leadership. It took active policy to get us there, and it will take active policy and support to keep us there.

Research universities make us safer. Imagine the fight against terrorists without facial recognition, detection technologies that sensitively trace bomb-making materials, satellite surveillance, secure communications, and tracking capabilities. It’s a scary thought.

Not only do these institutions innovate with vital technologies, they also produce the engine of new growth: The talented men and women who execute new ideas and build new enterprises. They create the jobs that give dignity to and foster well-being for individuals, and that grow the economic pie that ensures our global standing around the world.

Traditionally, the American government has been strongly supportive of research universities, bolstering their development with deliberate, forward-looking policies. The government push began 150 years ago with the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges and universities, and then continued with the development of the strong post-World War II government-university research partnerships.

But these institutions are at risk of stagnating, and that is the scariest thought of all. Next week, on June 14, the National Research Council will release a report entitled “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security.” This report will present the actions that state and federal governments and universities themselves must undertake to ensure American pre-eminence in innovation.

We need to get the ecosystem right. We need quicker, more nimble polices that can adapt to changing situations instead of monolithic, one-size-fits-all regulation. We need stronger incentives for business and industry to partner with research institutions, which will result in new jobs, and more importantly, American jobs. We also need universities that are leaner, streamlined, and more efficient.

Next week’s report, a follow-up to the seminal “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” will contain crucial guidance for policymakers, business leaders, and academics. Let’s all take time to listen. The well-being of America will depend in part on how we respond to this too commonly overlooked challenge.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at


This article was originally featured in The Week