UB op-ed: The changing role of the public research university

Understanding the benefits they bring to society
By: | Issue: July, 2019
July 22, 2019
Joseph A. Heppert is vice president for Research & Innovation at Texas Tech University.

As vice president for Research & Innovation at Texas Tech University, I work with faculty, staff and students to advance the research mission of the university, including all areas of research, from the arts to engineering. We foster a rich and dynamic academic environment fully engaged in research, scholarly inquiry, and creative activity.

As Texas Tech draws ever closer to its centennial anniversary, it gives me pause to reflect on the success of public research institutions and the roles and benefits they bring to society as a whole. Texas Tech’s commitment to exploring solutions to societal issues is evident through the efforts of its researchers. As an example, research in Texas Tech laboratories— such as the collaboration between Harvinder Gill and Steven Presley to create a universal flu vaccine — are extending these discoveries to benefit human health.

Learning for human knowledge and understanding

Throughout American history, the university system has had a primary mission of educating students, with the parallel expectation that faculty contribute to scholarly knowledge in their specific disciplines. This system provides students at top-tier research universities, like Texas Tech, with opportunities to learn from scholars, researchers and creative artists who help form the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. This system ensures that each new generation of university graduates is better prepared to serve society in roles as scholars, artists, educators and professionals.

The university system in the U.S. changed markedly in the early 1800s with the realization that a nation as large and diverse as the U.S. could not solely rely on the small, exclusive and privileged private university system. This era brought about the nation’s public university system. It was the birth of the land-grant university later that century that ushered in the era of the modern public research university.

This initial focus on creating a system to support agricultural research and innovation was a pragmatic decision for a nation that had just celebrated its 100th birthday. Agriculture was, as it remains today, a major contributor to U.S. economic output, and university-led innovations that diversified and increased agricultural production contributed to the individual economic prosperity of our citizens and enhanced our global competitiveness. This tradition of research and partnership between agricultural universities and agribusiness continues today across the nation.

With the onset of the 20th century, fundamental research in the physical sciences and engineering, the skilled workforce educated by our research universities, and fruitful partnerships between universities, government and industry laid a foundation of innovation that helped the nation prevail in the two devastating global conflicts of that century. Technologies discovered during this period and through our bold quest to explore outer space several decades later positioned the U.S. as the global leader in science and technology. The remarkable and ongoing evolution of the U.S. energy production over the past 40 years is a case study in technology innovation.

During and immediately following World War II, research universities increased their focus on seeking cures for diseases that had haunted humans from our earliest origins. Fundamental research in medical science centers, schools of pharmacy, and biology and chemistry departments resulted in the control of deadly infectious diseases that had devastated children and adults throughout the world, and contributed to some of the earliest victories in our continuing battle against cancer. Many U.S. citizens have lived into adulthood because of life-saving innovations pioneered at public research universities.

Increasingly, through the past two decades, U.S. public research universities have created partnerships to study and address pressing problems that threaten the vitality of many urban and rural communities. Across the nation, community organizations, corporations, and charitable foundations are engaged in partnerships with research universities to develop and implement new solutions for treating opioid addiction, providing access to high-quality mental health care, enhancing early childhood education, and empowering community-based entrepreneurship.

Supported by funding from various State of Texas agencies, Texas Tech is engaging community partners both locally and regionally in autism spectrum disorder, agriculture needs and education, among many others. The results of working within these communities will have an impact well beyond the borders of our state and nation.

Public research universities are understandably proud of the partnerships with communities, corporations and government laboratories. All of these activities are intended to inform young minds, enrich the quality of life of all Americans, strengthen our communities and enhance the nation’s economic and social competitiveness. The nation has reaped an enormous return on its investments in university research, scholarship and creative activity. We can all be enormously proud of this legacy.

Joseph A. Heppert is vice president for Research & Innovation at Texas Tech University.