12/21/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

The Research University: Too Vital to Fail

I am not a scientist. I have never analyzed the far reaches of the solar system through the lens of a telescope nor scrutinized cancer cells under a microscope. But having led universities for 32 years, I have seen firsthand the power of research and human ingenuity to transform lives.

To be plain, if leaders in Washington, D.C., do not come to an agreement, we will see not just massive cuts in funding. We will see lives diminished, futures put on hold, and opportunities lost.

"The stakes could hardly be higher for research universities, which are the engines that power much of the country's scientific, technological, and economic growth." So said Indiana University President Michael McRobbie in a recent editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And earlier in the week, I read a timely piece by my friends Senator Lamar Alexander and Hunter Rawlings III, which pointed out that, for the United States, "Research is our secret weapon, our edge in an increasingly competitive world economy."

I could not agree more. And, as the president of one of the largest, most complex public research universities in the country, I must add my own voice to the chorus. As federal funding for research hangs in the balance, so, too, do the futures of our next generation of scientists, doctors, and inventors -- as well as our country's status as a global leader in innovation.

Certainly, it is imperative that our leaders target wasteful spending as they calibrate a more sustainable bottom line. But, the question is: Is it wasteful to invest in American ingenuity? The drive for discovery that has fueled the American economy since its earliest days? That has led to centuries of extraordinary technological and medical advances?

Amid the theater and speculation in our country's capital, the human element is often overlooked.

Consider Ohio State undergraduate Dustin Gable, who arrived on our campus without a major or career in mind. In the span of a few weeks, a freshman biology class sparked his interest in research, which led to him work part-time in a lab, shoulder-to-shoulder with faculty researching the causes of skin cancer. This experience not only defined his freshman year, but also paved the way for him to graduate four years later, with a clear path to a career in pediatric oncology and research.

The fallout from the fiscal cliff will be felt at the graduate level as well, where our most talented students may lose out on critical research opportunities. Top of mind is Chris Jaworski, who graduated this year with a doctorate in engineering. Federal research funding enabled Chris to make vast breakthroughs in developing new metal alloys with improved thermoelectric efficiency -- discoveries that could impact worldwide energy conservation. He then continued his research with the help of a U.S. Department of Energy GATE fellowship. By the time he graduated, Chris was working closely with a start-up company to commercialize his materials and had filed five patents for his inventions.

This type of ingenuity and innovation is not a fluke. It is something that happens every day on campuses across the nation.

Our faculty members are both extraordinarily inventive and talented. They are irrevocably changing the way businesses and entire industries operate -- from alternative energy-conversion technologies to new health screenings for dogs to new medical equipment. This research -- made possible by federal funding -- is the cornerstone of discovery and economic and social advancement.

Our country cannot and will not move forward in today's competitive global society if critical funding for research and discovery is left at the chopping block. Research is and has always been the catalyst for progress and promise in this country. It is the linchpin of the marketplace and the foundation of the world economy. And it is a vital investment in our collective future.