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January 11, 2008

The Mission of the Modern Research University

Address to the City Club, Cleveland, OH

Barbara Snyder

This address is also available in audio from the City Club of Cleveland. Listen to the audio in .mp3 format.

Thank you for that kind introduction, Brian.

I was last here at the City Club in early December to hear Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg. Two words came to mind after she finished her reflections about the future of journalism and Cleveland:

Bravo… and… Uh—oh.

Bravo because her speech was equal parts eloquent and honest, acknowledging the challenges faced by her industry and her newly adopted city, while at the same time offering a powerful vision for both their futures.

Uh-oh because I knew I'd be appearing at this same podium just a few weeks later… and she had just set the bar awfully high.

I worried about it for a bit, but then decided to chalk up the experience as one more in an ever-growing list of lessons for my first year as president:

When you're one of two new leaders in town—and the other one is quite a writer—try to get to the City Club first.

Of course it's not as though I don't feel some degree of pressure every day when I come to work—and I'm not only talking about the challenge of the presidency itself.

When you walk into the entryway of our administration building, Adelbert Hall, on the left you'll see a sizable plaque designating the spot as a national historic landmark.

It reads in part: "In his laboratory… in the basement of this building…Edward W. Morley…carried out research on the atomic weight of oxygen that provided a new standard to the science of chemistry… His great work…also gave important insight to the atomic theory of matter."

The atomic theory of matter—the basis of all physics and chemistry.

Talk about feeling the weight of history at your job.

But the truth is that such a legacy brings not only a deep sense of responsibility, but also an inspiring feeling of potential.

Professor Morley applied his intellect and energy to a question that burned within him, and his efforts resulted in a discovery that influenced the work of thousands of scientists who followed.

At the same time, I consider it crucial to note, he had an equally impressive reputation as a teacher—demanding, yes, but devoted to ensuring his students mastered not only science, but also precision in language.

Said one of my predecessors of Professor Morley:

"His power as a teacher lives, and lives as long as do the lives of the hundreds of students whom he taught, and to whom he gave intellectual quickening."

And this, to me, is the magic of a research university. It collects men and women of great intelligence and offers them a place of common purpose. Together these talented scholars not only pursue key questions, but also convey their passion for subjects on to the legions of young people who come to campus each year.

This combination—the discovery and delivery of knowledge—has made institutions like Case Western Reserve University a compelling part of our nation's long record of innovation, and the foundation of its future.

We change lives here, by what we teach and what we learn. So, for me, passing Professor Morley's plaque every day offers, yes, a sense of obligation, but—even more—one of opportunity.

And, every day, our faculty, staff and students seize that opportunity.

Let me cite one recent example: A few months after I arrived, our university claimed the single largest grant the National Institutes of Health has ever given in Northeast Ohio. Through this $64 million award, we will partner with the Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, and University Hospitals to develop new ways to treat some of our most challenging diseases.

This award is one of just 12 granted this fall to places like Johns Hopkins, Cornell and the University of Chicago; its goal is to take research breakthroughs out of the lab and put them to work helping patients. In so doing, we are fulfilling what I consider the essential mission of the modern research university: to find solutions for society's greatest challenges.

Today I want to talk about the rich history of research universities in this country, and of the role they have played in our nation's progress. I'll also share examples of ways that Case Western Reserve has and will continue to fulfill its mission—and detail some of the ingredients essential to our future success.

But first, I want to get back to Professor Morley. As many of you know, this achievement wasn't even his best-known. In 1887 Morley, a Western Reserve College Professor of Chemistry, teamed with Physics Professor Albert A. Michelson of the Case School of Applied Science. Their joint experiment disproved a common belief at the time: the existence of an ether that allowed light to propagate. Their work laid the foundation for Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

The Michelson-Morley experiment is worth mentioning not only because of its basic scientific importance, but also because of the broader implications it offers for the present. Michelson and Morley each were accomplished scholars as individuals, but they attained their greatest triumph when they combined their strengths—in short, when they worked together.

Case Western Reserve University itself is certainly a stellar example of what can be accomplished through partnership. But in truth the history of all national research universities is rooted squarely in cooperative relationships—most notably, those between the federal government and institutions of higher learning.

Go back to World War II. The Germans had U-Boats and Buzz Bombs, and the Allies were reeling. The United States dedicated its best scientists to finding ways to counter the enemies' deadly innovations. You are all no doubt familiar with the Manhattan Project, but did you know that some of the most important advances in radar came through work by scientists at MIT? Or that Columbia University researchers partnered with Pfizer to figure out a safe way to mass produce the new "wonder drug," penicillin? Those efforts saved thousands of American lives, and played a vital role in our victory.

Certainly President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the power of this relationship between government and academia. In November, 1944, six months after D-Day, President Roosevelt sent a letter to Vannevar Bush, the director of his Office of Scientific Research and Development. FDR noted the scientific achievements made during the war, and asked Dr. Bush to explore ways that this cooperation could continue in peace. FDR wrote then:

"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness and drive with which we have waged this war, we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment, and a fuller and more fruitful life."

In the summer of 1945, Dr. Bush provided his response, an ambitious document that linked continuing scientific research to both national security and the public welfare.

He called for a national science policy, and urged government to partner with research universities.

"Basic research leads to new knowledge," he wrote. "It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science."

This document served as a blueprint for the next half-century, witnessing the evolution of the National Institutes of Health, the creation of the National Science Foundation and a record of investment that made our nation the technological envy of the world. Dr. Bush was right about the potential housed in our universities:

  • Progress in theoretical physics at places like Tufts University led to advancements like CAT scans.
  • The first patent for an artificial heart was assigned to the University of Utah.
  • Researchers at Harvard were among those who discovered the structure of DNA;
  • the Human Genome Project involved researchers at Stanford, several branches of the University of California and yes, Case Western Reserve.

Case Western Reserve also played a crucial role in the war on polio, when Dr. Frederick Robbins and two of his former colleagues at Harvard discovered a way to grow the polio virus in cell culture. This advance enabled the production of a vaccine that was of lower risk to patients and less expensive to produce.

The work paved the way for Dr. Jonas Salk's breakthrough, and won Dr. Robbins a share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1954—one of fifteen Nobels awarded to our faculty and alumni, including six in the past 15 years.

The best-known example of the rewards of the federal-academic partnership is, of course, the Internet. It grew out of a defense department project that sought to create a new means of war-time communication. Launched in 1969, it spent decades known only to defense-related programmers and academic researchers before finally going public in the early 1990s.

Then, one of the Internet's greatest success stories, Google, was the brainchild of two Stanford University graduate students—one of whom was a fellow of the National Science Foundation, the very same organization that grew from Dr. Bush's document.

And if those examples aren't persuasive enough, consider some broader numbers:

  • From 1900 to 1999 the average human lifespan grew from 47 to 77 years.
  • From 1950 to 2000 the rate of deaths from heart disease fell by more than half.
  • From 1975 to 2001 five-year survival rates for cancer increased by a third.

Or, think about this finding from a recent national report: a series of studies of the impact of public investments in science find that the annual return to society ranges between 20 and 100 percent. I don't know about you, but I would be thrilled if any of my stock picks offer those kinds of returns.

And remember, these figures represent efforts at dozens of major research universities, each of which has its own unique impact. A recent analysis found that, in a single year, Case Western Reserve University's economic impact totaled about 9,000 jobs and $898 million. Over the past six years alone, our researchers have made discoveries that led to the creation of 20 new companies. One, CardioInsight, is pioneering a way to examine the heart's electrical activity without an invasive procedure. Its founders are two graduates of our doctoral program in biomedical engineering.

We also contribute the skills of our graduates, who work at existing area companies like Philips and General Electric. Large numbers of alumni also fill key roles at places like Medtronic, Dow Chemical, and Lubrizol.

Our alumni include such innovators as M. Frank Rudy, creator of the Nike Air Sole, Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and Paul Bucheit, an inventor of Google's gmail and author of their company slogan, "Don't Be Evil."

Today on our campus researchers have discovered ways to make blind mice see—think about the possibilities when we determine how to lift that darkness for people.

They are developing a blood test for colon cancer—imagine how much more likely people would be to take that exam rather than the one exists today.

Case Western Reserve scientists have taken the achievements of the Human Genome Project and now are going even deeper to personalize medicine. Going forward, the treatment your doctor prescribes will be the one best suited to your individual biological makeup—rather than one based on average rates of recovery.

When you consider both these statistics and accomplishments, it's easy to understand why, in 2004, Bill Gates declared: "I believe the university system is the number one thing that has allowed the United States to stay at the center of innovation."

And yet, even with all of these breakthroughs, in recent years more and more of us have begun to recognize that this country is at grave risk of losing its once-vaunted status.

Some of you may be familiar with the national security commission chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, the group that in February, 2001 explicitly warned of the very kind of attack the nation suffered seven months later on September 11.

That prescient report did more than assess our military and public safety preparedness; the group made a series of targeted recommendations regarding the need to increase spending on basic science research and improve the Kindergarten through 12th grade education system.

"Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city," they wrote, "we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology and education for the common good over the next quarter century."

To our peril, little in that report has been heeded.

Four years later, another panel sought to awaken us from our slumber. Their document, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," painted an even bleaker picture. Consider some of the findings from this document, as well as a 2007 follow-up essay entitled, "Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?":

  • Over the past two decades, the numbers of engineers, mathematicians, and physical scientists graduating with bachelor's degrees in the United States have declined by 18 percent.
  • Over the past decade, the number of engineering doctorates granted to U.S. citizens by American universities fell by nearly 25 percent.
  • In 1990 the United States enjoyed a net $40 billion advantage in our trade balance regarding high-technology goods. In 2001 our country suffered a $50 billion deficit.

In the mid-1960s the federal government accounted for more than two-thirds of all spending on research and development. Throughout the following decades that share declined fairly steadily, dropping to just one-fourth of all research spending in 2000. Adjusted for inflation, our country spent about a fifth less on research in 2000 than it did a decade and a half earlier.

True, private industry in turn has increased its commitment to university research, a commitment that has proved valuable both for Case Western Reserve and the companies that have partnered with us. Still, its contributions do not come close to earlier levels of government support.

Last year some of these worrisome statistics helped persuade Congress to pass a much-heralded American Competitiveness Act, but so far the politicians have yet to attach real money to the bill's rich rhetoric: The budget for the National Institutes of Health will climb just 1 percent this year, and the National Science Foundation's growth is under 3 percent.

Contrast those figures with the recommendations of the Gathering Storm report: they urged an increase in the federal investment in long-term basic research of 10 percent each year for the next seven years.

The situation has grown so critical that a group of top scientists and other leaders, including one of our own Case Western Reserve University's outstanding physicists, Lawrence Krauss, have come together to urge the presidential candidates to hold a debate on science and technology this year.

Those joining the effort include more than a dozen Nobel prize-winners and many more leaders from business, journalism and academia. I am proud to join the presidents of Princeton, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon, among others, in making this call upon those who wish to lead our country.

The irony of Washington's position on these crucial questions is particularly striking when compared to those of state leaders. A few years ago the National Governors Association declared: "The driving force behind the 21st Century economy is knowledge and developing human capital is the best way to ensure prosperity."

Ohio recognized the wisdom of this approach when it launched the Third Frontier initiative, a program that has provided more than $300 million to Northeast Ohio. Consider a few of the grants involving Case Western Reserve:

  1. Targeted Nanoparticles: These tiny structures are designed to light up diseased sites such as tumors when physicians take images of the body. Ultimately researchers hope to be able to send them to that same tumor site to attack cancer cells, but not healthy ones.
  2. Adult Stem Cells: Our Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, a partnership with University Hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio State University and Athersys, is developing ways to use adult stem cells to repair bone and cartilage destroyed by trauma and illness, and beat back diseases like leukemia and multiple sclerosis.
  3. Fuel Cells: Case Western Reserve is the lead institution for a statewide team of more than 20 members, including Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Ohio State, NASA-Glenn, First Energy and Keithley Instruments. The state's investment and our researchers' groundbreaking work have seen three major fuel cell companies move into the state.

I mentioned fuel cells last because they tie into one of our most important recent initiatives, the launch of the Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation. This effort builds on our existing strengths, and seeks to expand our knowledge in realms like wind and solar power, and energy conversion and storage.

We want to find ways, for example, to use the existing energy grid more efficiently. We have joined with the Cuyahoga County Commissioners to study the feasibility of a wind demonstration project on Lake Erie. Any of us who've driven along the Shoreway in recent weeks have felt the power of those gusts; imagine the kilowatts we could capture by erecting a series of windmills well off shore.

Last month the Cleveland Foundation demonstrated its confidence in our work with a $3.6 million grant award for the institute. The foundation's leader, Ronn Richard, has been at the forefront of our region's efforts to promote alternative energy initiatives; indeed, he played a key role in persuading the German company IBC Solar AG to build its U.S. headquarters in Cleveland.

Thank you, Ronn, for your broad vision and support of our efforts.

The area of energy is also, not surprisingly, attracting growing interest from investors. A report last year found that capital flowing to renewable energy had topped $100 billion in 2006, a jump of 158 percent over two years. Recognizing this potential, Gov. Ted Strickland has made the quest for alternative energy a priority of his administration, joining those who predict our state could be the "Silicon Valley" of renewable energy if we make the right choices today.

We at Case Western Reserve University agree—and are proud to be a leader in this effort.

One of the aspects of our energy institute that most excites me is that it involves no fewer than 10 different departments and three schools. Interdisciplinary study has become a bit of a buzzword in higher education in recent years, and with reason. As looming challenges grow more complex, the need to tackle problems from a range of perspectives has become increasingly urgent.

A 2005 report by McKinsey & Company analyzed changes in the U.S. workplace that have led to increasing demands for a far more sophisticated worker. In fact, its researchers found, 70 percent of the jobs created since 1998 required these higher-level skills—and they are being created at a rate two-and-a-half to three times faster than less intellectually challenging positions.

Where are the nation's future leaders more likely to learn these skills than at an institution for higher learning where the greatest level of intellectual inquiry already takes place through research? Indeed, at Case Western Reserve University and increasingly elsewhere, even our undergraduates are active participants in complex research projects. Bachelor degree candidates in Biology Professor Radhika Atit's lab, for example, have conducted independent experiments regarding membrane signaling in skin cells. Another undergraduate, Sonia Merritt, last year was selected to present her research on Capitol Hill regarding polymers used to deliver medication inside the body. And then there's Shaan Gandhi, who as a freshman studied the polarization of light from lasers, then went on to examine mutations responsible for specific genetic disorders. He is now studying at Oxford University in England as a 2007 Rhodes Scholar.

Let me be clear, our students do not learn only in laboratories. Charles Fowler, president and CEO of Fairmount Minerals, earned his executive MBA at our Weatherhead School of Management nearly two decades ago. The lessons imparted by one professor, David Cooperrider, regarding the way businesses could "do well by doing good," so struck him that last year he created the Fairmount Minerals Chair in Social Entrepreneurship, with Professor Cooperrider as its first appointee.

As evidenced by these examples, at its heart a university is about people, those who study at the institution, and those who benefit from that study.

I'd like to take a moment now to tell you a story about two individuals connected to Case Western Reserve; their tale exemplifies many of the themes I've sought to emphasize today.

Many years ago a young engineer was completing his degree at Clarkson University in New York. Like many college seniors he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do next. While waiting for an appointment with his college advisor, he happened upon a magazine story about implantable heart valves. The young man was just blown away—it had never occurred to him that devices could be put inside the human body.

At the time Case Western Reserve University was one of a handful of institutions exploring this fledgling field. One of its rising stars was Thomas Mortimer.

Now, with his new young graduate student from Clarkson, Mortimer began to explore ways to to use electrical stimulation to bring life to paralyzed limbs.

A big part of the problem, Mortimer and his young colleague discovered, was that long-unused limbs quickly tired; to overcome it, the young graduate student found that stimulating the muscles before asking them to work could—as in the case with exercise—lead to greater endurance.

Those of you who have had physical therapy involving electrodes have some idea what I'm talking about; this early discovery, aimed directly at paralyzed individuals, has had broad implications for those recovering from far more minor injuries.

Lesson #1: You just never know the applications of original research.

In any event, this graduate student from Clarkson earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in a few years, but was so fascinated by the subject that he wanted to stay on. The problem was that Mortimer—now a professor—was running out of federal funding for himself, much less his assistant. So Mortimer went to the NIH headquarters in Bethesda and begged for continued support. Ultimately he won new grant dollars for himself and his protege, a man who today is an international legend in the field, Hunter Peckham, Case Western Reserve's interim chairman of the department of biomedical engineering and executive director of the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center.

Lesson #2: Our nation's brightest young minds need support to prove themselves, not only dollars awarded after they've succeeded.

Now I come to the second star of this tale, Jim Jatich, a young Akron man who in 1977 went for a swim after a hot day of house painting. He dove into the lake, and broke two vertebrae, leaving him unable to use his legs or hands.

Enter Professor Peckham, seeking a patient willing to have electrodes implanted inside his body. They started with single-strand platinum electrodes, injected at the wrist with a hypodermic needle. Over the next two decades, Jatich estimates he had 150 to 200 of those electrodes put into his body.

Eventually Jatich became the first candidate to receive a system called Freehand, which allowed him to grasp a glass or pencil and even type on a computer—ultimately he was even able to return to his career as a draftsman.

Lesson #3: Never underestimate what can be accomplished when individuals of intelligence, passion and persistence come together.

Jatich's courage and commitment allowed remarkable progress by Peckham and his colleagues, and in turn for dozens of other patients who followed him. The Cleveland FES Center, today a collaboration among Case Western Reserve University, MetroHealth, and the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center, has received millions of dollars from both the federal and state government. Researchers' work has led to spin-off companies and allowed paralyzed individuals to be able to swallow and stand.

Lesson #4: Each individual discovery provides a legacy of its own, allowing those who follow to build and expand our frontiers of knowledge and understanding beyond anything we might imagine today.

Research universities are part of a unique compact in this country. The public places enormous trust in our institutions, investing not only substantial financial resources but also a family's most precious resource, its children. In return we provide education for our students and advancement for society at large.

History has revealed the enormous rewards of this relationship—and recent years have shown the risks that result when it is neglected. Ohio's leaders now understand the imperative of investment, and it is my hope that the work of Professor Krauss and others involved in Sciencedebate 2008 will raise awareness nationally.

I have spent a lifetime in higher education for one reason—I believe that universities have the power to shape the future. I consider it a privilege to lead this institution, where every day our faculty, staff and students touch that future in classrooms and laboratories, libraries and auditoriums. We are fulfilling the mission of a modern research university, but let me be clear: We cannot do it alone.

I hope that I have given you a sense of the importance and potential of partnership between society and modern research universities, and that you leave today as committed to that partnership as we are at Case Western Reserve.

Thank you.