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Scientific research, development are crucial to Utah's economic future

Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative researchers showcase their most exciting projects and emerging technologies at the 2013 Innovation Fair at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative researchers showcase their most exciting projects and emerging technologies at the 2013 Innovation Fair at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Never in the history of the world has science and technology been so exciting as it is today — or so important. Never has basic scientific research been so integral to solving problems, creating jobs and maintaining a strong economy.

The countries, states and universities that invest in basic research will be the economic winners of the future. They will dominate the global economy.

Scientific discovery is proceeding at an ever-increasing rate, disrupting entire industries and creating entirely new categories of jobs and businesses. We need those jobs and businesses in Utah, so we must continue to invest in research and development.

Utah is blessed with a diverse economy, which is a big reason that our economy is among the strongest in the nation. Research and development, especially at our research universities, is partly responsible for that diversity. Research is a crucial pillar of Utah’s economy.

A San Jose Mercury News editorial recently noted that “the United States is losing its edge. It is surrendering the research and development advantage that has fueled its economy for six decades.”

The editorial noted that China now does more research and development than the United States, and South Korea and Germany have greater annual growth in R&D expenditures. China increased its research spending by 20 percent between 2001 and 2011, a far faster rate than the U.S.

The National Science Foundation, which is the main source of federal support for mathematics and computer science research, receives about 40,000 grant applications a year, but can only fund a quarter of them.

By contrast, the editorial said, China is aggressively funding its research programs and universities and is producing more students with science, technology and engineering degrees than the United States.

Certainly, much important R&D is done by large companies in the private sector. But most private sector research focuses on products and services that can be commercialized relatively quickly, while pure, basic research may not pay off for many years — but is just as important.

Government and university labs produced the initial R&D that paved the way for the Internet, long before anyone saw much commercial value in the endeavor. President Obama has noted that federally funded research led to the ideas behind Google and smartphones — now multibillion-dollar industries.

Advanced research is revolutionizing energy development, advanced manufacturing, space exploration, underseas exploration, pharmacology, robotics/drones, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biomedical engineering.

In Utah, our universities are focusing research on fossil and alternative energy, nanotechnology, biosensors, diagnostic neuroimaging, biomedical device innovation, imaging technology, brain circuitry, cell therapy and regenerative medicine, micro and nano systems integration, nanoscale and biomedical photonic imaging, digital media, chemical biology, drug discovery, cancer therapeutics and genetic discovery.

Dozens of great companies have spun out of university research in Utah. Among the best known are Biofire Diagnostics, a clinical diagnostics company with more than 85 patents; Myriad Genetics, a molecular diagnostic company; ARUP Laboratories, a world leader in innovative laboratory research and development; Actavis, a global, integrated specialty pharmaceutical company; Blackrock Microsystems, which provides enabling tools for neuroscience, neural engineering and neuroprosthetics research worldwide.

Ceramatec, which developed advanced batteries and other ceramic and electronic innovations, grew to 150 employees, developed numerous additional products, and has spawned 10 additional offshoot companies.

Our universities are producing research and companies that allow electric buses to recharge batteries while driving routes, predict weather with much better accuracy, use incredibly strong synthetic spider silk in a variety of products, use sugar to fuel batteries, reduce tendon suture tearing, improve mercury sensing, enable regenerative medicine, produce anti-inflammatory therapies and enhance veterinary wound care — and many more innovations.

Basic research is crucial to Utah’s economic future, and we must continue to support and fund research initiatives.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.