By Paula Gardner of MLive

Three of Michigan’s universities combine to conduct $1.2 billion in health science research, yet their leaders say the lack of a coordinated funding strategy threatens to diminish their ability to continue as a top‐​tier national research hub.

“This is the intellectual bridge to the future,” said Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, during an interview at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Simon joined the other two presidents — Mark Schlissel of the University of Michigan and W. Roy Wilson of Wayne State University — to urge the state to prioritize higher education funding as it considers infrastructure spending.

The three universities are three of four that still haven’t returned to 2011 funding levels, which were followed by a 15 percent cut in 2012.

Even with the drop in support, Michigan ranks 11th nationally for life science research. And these three universities account for 95 percent of the state’s academic research into it.

“Just think where the state could be if we had a consistent strategy like other states,” said Simon.

That suggests that Michigan isn’t valuing research as economic and academic drivers, said M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State.

He cites the returns seen in Nebraska, Georgia and New York, which more actively support the research “that saves lives,” he said.

The universities combine under the University Research Corridor alliance, which released a report on June 1 showing the economic benefits to Michigan from health science R&D.

As an example of the depth of the sector: One in eight Michigan residents works in the life, medical and health sciences. It also compares in size to manufacturing and retail jobs in Michigan — yet it’s the only sector that added jobs during the downturn, notably compared to manufacturing, which lost about 1/​3 of its jobs in Michigan.

Still, its place in the state’s funding priorities raises questions about the future.

“There are tremendous pressures at the state level in terms of state support,” said URC CEO Jeff Mason. “When you add on some of the challenges that appear to be on the horizon for federal funding of research activities … I think the fear is you could almost create a perfect storm.”

A lack of federal reinvestment in research funding, like through the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation, could lose momentum now found in Michigan, the URC officials said. The NIH, for example, funds 58 percent of U‑M’s research budget, yet it faces a proposed $5.8 billion cut under the new federal budget.

If that disappears, “it’s hard to get it back,” Mason said.

He suggested, along with the presidents, that Michigan officials consider investing in higher education and research to be part of infrastructure investment.

“It’s really going to help our economy move forward for the future,” Mason said.

Michigan is one of a handful of states that have a university research cluster, Mason said.

Jeffrey Guilfoyle, author of the URC report for Public Sector Consultants Inc. of Lansing,  noted that the communities that host research clusters are known as national leaders in education, innovation and economic development. The two he mentioned are anchored by Stanford University in Silicon Valley and Harvard University in greater Boston, and Michigan joins them in scope through the URC.

“We could get left behind,” Guilfoyle said as a concern over funding.

The report released on Thursday underscores the URC’s impact on Michigan by presenting the research spending as economic impact.

“If you thought of them as major companies, states would be falling over themselves trying to attract them to the state,” Mason said.

He continued: “They’re a force in keeping Michigan competitive, compared to other states.”

According to the report:

  • URC institutions conducted over $1.2 billion in academic R&D in the life, medical, and health sciences in 2015, accounting for 95 percent of the state’s total.
  • Operating throughout the state, URC institutions have more than 3 million patient care visits each year and perform tens of thousands of surgeries.
  • URC institutions are a primary source of talent in the life, medical, and health sciences producing 44 percent of the state’s degrees in these fields and higher shares for more advanced degrees.
  • URC institutions have been averaging a new start‐​up company every other month in the life, medical, and health sciences over the past five years.

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