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Simon, Coleman & Wilson: We can't afford to slash research funding

December 9, 2013

An engine robbed of fuel slows and then sputters to a halt. Nobody understands such mechanics better than people in Michigan.

Today, it is innovation and talent that fuel our economy, secure our freedom and ensure an improved future. They are vital components of America’s success, and we in Michigan take a backseat to none in producing them. But as presidents of Michigan’s top three research universities, we must tell you that the warning light is on.

If Congress does not restore rationality to America’s budgeting process, first by ending the reckless across-the-board sequestration cuts that became the budget default in March, the engine of America’s quality of life will begin to seize.

Our three universities stand together as the University Research Corridor, enrolling a quarter of the state’s college students and conducting more than $2 billion annually in research and development. One of the nation’s top innovation clusters, the URC helps bring some of the world’s most talented people to our state and equips our own students to compete globally.

Federal dollars flowing to universities such as ours support well over half of America’s scientific research, and a large share of the R&D that turns fundamental discoveries into innovative processes and products. The talent we develop in our classrooms and laboratories accounts for an even greater share. But like any other talent-driven organization, once a program or lab is closed, it is difficult to restore. Potential and opportunities are lost, for years — perhaps forever.

A recent nationwide survey of research universities shows that most of us already can point to cuts in research support by our funding agencies. This threatened work affects vital sectors including medicine, agriculture, engineering and energy. It impacts the careers of our research faculty, recruitment of graduate and undergraduate students and relationships with external partners. It threatens our communities and diminishes prospects for our nation’s competitiveness in a world where others perceive an American lack of will. Other nations are taking pages out of our playbook by investing more in research and higher education, while we cede the initiative.

The nation has reached another point of decision. If Congress can’t stop digging this hole by Friday, yet another round of across-the-board sequestration cuts takes effect in January. That means deserving new research projects going unfunded and, perhaps, some existing programs gutted. Promising young researchers could be cut loose, program infrastructure would start to unravel and more hard-won ground would be lost.

As administrators we fully appreciate the nation’s need to address its fiscal challenges. But as stewards of some of Michigan’s greatest human and physical assets, we believe you should know these assets are in jeopardy not because of any thoughtful reassessment, but from simple negligence.

Do we wish to maintain the leadership that brings so much international talent to our communities; that promises improved health and quality of life through breakthroughs in genomic and translational medicine, and that offers both environmental and economic sustainability in energy? Then surely, we can do better than this.

Americans wouldn’t dream of disarming in the face of external threat. Nor should we allow internal dysfunction to render us vulnerable in the 21st-Century’s global knowledge economy. Our leaders should end the sequester and restore responsibility in Washington.

Lou Anna K. Simon is president of the Michigan State University. Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan and M. Roy Wilson is president of Wayne State University.