By CURT M. PETERSON
MORGANTOWN -- The ascension of new American leadership always leads to a sense of change and the expectation that a new administration will initiate solid solutions to the most pressing problems that confront the nation.
Because the economy is one of those key problems, it is the right time for focused consideration of the role of basic research as a workhorse for changing the course of the American economy.
More than 33,500 people are out of work in West Virginia, according to numbers released by Workforce West Virginia last month. The national numbers are no more comforting: the U.S. lost about two million jobs in 2008. A strong engine is clearly needed to pull us out of this economic quagmire.
Broadly defined, that engine is innovation, and the new president knows it. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama specifically called on universities to help "meet the demands of a new age through knowledge, science, technology and research."
As Google CEO Eric Schmidt said recently, "America's unique excellence is innovation, and businesses that innovate are the ones that have the greatest and longest lasting impacts."
Most innovation is the result of basic research conducted on university campuses and supported by the federal government. Basic research is the open-ended, often ambitious research discoveries that don't have a specific application, but which can lead to amazing and unexpected results that can have significant economic impact.
Google is a wonderful example. The ideas behind its search engine were advanced by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford University graduate students, working on basic research supported by the National Science Foundation. Now, almost everyone knows or has at least heard of Google. It has a market worth of nearly $150 billion with 19,000 employees.
The concept of basic research driving economic development is hardly new. Vannevar Bush was an engineer and science administrator known for his work on analog computing and the idea of the memex -- a pioneering idea for the World Wide Web. He also was America's first presidential science adviser. In 1945, he wrote a detailed report to FDR envisioning the role that research should play in making people's lives better.
He wrapped it up in one simple sentence: "New products, new industries and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes."
This statement still has significant meaning in this first decade of the 21st century, except now we recognize the importance of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the researcher expressed through innovation, technology transfer and commercialization of discoveries to significantly impact economic development of a state, region or the entire nation.
Here at West Virginia University, hundreds of faculty researchers and graduate students are engaged in research projects that add to the knowledge of the laws of nature, which are then transitioned into practical purposes. WVU research and discoveries in energy, biomedicine, homeland security, nanotechnology and a host of other fields and interdisciplinary initiatives are aimed at making people's lives better. That work represents an engine with potential to create new projects, industries and jobs just as Vannevar Bush anticipated.
President Obama and leaders in both parties recognize this and have sought to include funding for research grants and scientific infrastructure in economic recovery legislation. These targeted, short-term funding opportunities are very important. They can immediately create jobs and stimulate economic activity in communities across the country, but so can providing strong, predictable funding for basic research year-in and year-out.
This is why President Obama's pledge to double basic research funding for physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering over the next decade is extremely encouraging. His message of support must be encouraging to West Virginia's congressional delegation, which has stood tall in the fight to fund basic research.
Basic research is not an expense or a drag on the economy; it is an investment in our future. It is the engine that can pull us up and out of the economic quagmire. So I, for one, am hopeful that on Jan. 20, we inaugurated not just a president, but also a renewed commitment to basic research. That's a change we can all believe in.
Peterson is WVU's vice president for research and economic development and the president of the WVU Research Corp.