Expanding the fully engaged public research university

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Iowa City Press-Citizen

Last month, the United States marked an important milestone. On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” The 50th anniversary of Johnson’s State of the Union Address has reignited a national debate about income inequality and government roles in improving the plight of the poor.

Regardless of one’s political ideology, a quote from Johnson’s speech remains poignant and relevant today: “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

The American Dream was built on the shared principles of economic opportunity and upward mobility. The idea that everyone deserves a fair shot — not a guarantee, but a fair shot — to better their socioeconomic circumstances through hard work and determination is a central tenet of the American social contract. However, it’s still difficult to climb the socioeconomic ladder or even to maintain a grip on one’s current rung. In fact, a recent study showed that 43 percent of Americans born into the bottom quintile of household income remain there as adults.

Not that long ago, a college degree was a ticket out of poverty and up the socioeconomic ladder through access to a high-skill, high-wage job. On this, I speak from personal experience. In today’s global knowledge economy, a college degree is necessary, but no longer sufficient to ensure lifelong success. Skills development is now a lifelong process.

The same can be said for companies, who must regularly reinvent themselves to deliver value in a rapidly shifting competitive landscape. The Fortune 500 is sprinkled with new companies that were more nimble and adaptive, displacing many others that were icons of our childhood.

America’s research universities are responding to their own set of disruptive changes. As a result, public universities in particular, are beginning to embrace a new paradigm — one of engagement and partnerships to drive innovation and spur the economy.

University engagement, partnerships

During the past year, I have traveled across Iowa, meeting business, government and community leaders. Two clear messages emerged:

  • First, there is a pressing need for advanced entrepreneurship and IT training, along with practical partnerships to solve the business and technical needs of Iowa businesses.


  • Second, there is a broad desire and need for the University of Iowa to play a much more direct and engaged role in helping Iowa entrepreneurs, small businesses and large companies be both competitive and innovative.

To respond to these needs, UI is creating the first two in a series of regional economic development engagement centers, one in western and one in Eastern Iowa. The centers will work with local businesses, economic development groups and community colleges to solve tangible and specific economic problems and to address specific skills shortages. Each center will leverage local expertise and existing facilities to target both statewide needs and regional opportunities.

Locally, UI research enterprise remains strong and vibrant, an incubator of new ideas and trained talent. University research funding from public and private sources exceeds $400 million annually, with a larger portion of funding provided by industry each year. The UI Research Park is home to 33 companies and roads are being expanded to open 15 additional lots.

The university has formed an innovative partnership with Kirkwood Community College and the Grant Wood Area Educational Agency to build a 100,000-square-foot facility to prepare K-12 students for degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Area employers provided help and input for this new education center, which is slated to open in 2015.

Research innovation, economic growth

I want to close by discussing a unique role universities play in the innovation ecosystem and knowledge economy, one that goes beyond technology development — that of developing human capacity.

In 1890, the British economist Alfred Marshall, recognizing the economic importance of developing human capacity remarked, “Knowledge is our most important engine of production.” What was true in the late 19th century, is doubly true today, in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

If knowledge is our most important engine of production, then talent is the raw material powering that engine.

Universities exist to create knowledge, innovate and cultivate talent. We must give our students the relevant knowledge and practical skills that Iowa companies need to remain competitive and to grow and prosper. We also must teach and inspire students to create their own jobs by building new companies right here in Iowa.

The University of Iowa is fully committed to forming active, engaged partnerships with the state and private sector to build Iowa’s human capital for the 21st century. Together, the future can be and will be bright.

Daniel Reed, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Iowa, is a frequent government adviser on science and technology policy. Contact him at dan-reed@uiowa.edu or read his other musings at www.hpcdan.org.


Iowa City Press-Citizen