Editorial: Iowa’s future needs research and development


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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation recently released its interactive state-ranking map analyzing how each state stacks up based on a number of different economic factors. While the Chamber of Commerce seems to place heavy emphasis on business-focused analysis, the numbers provide useful insights into state economies and how a number of factors affect state progress. From a business standpoint, Iowa boasts very strong productivity and income growth  —  fourth in the nation for both metrics. The state also ranks fairly well in regards to job training and education.

But, despite these positive indicators, Iowa has room to vastly improve upon other areas such as Internet access. According to the report, Iowans face hardships in terms of broadband access, mostly in rural areas, though the state’s ranking has improved some recently. The issue that stands out the most is the state’s painfully low ranking in “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” which depends partially on job growth in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields and the relative size of research and development in the state’s economy.

Iowa’s slight decline in these fields, as illustrated by Chamber of Commerce’s report, is concerning given how crucial technology is to the future of the state’s economy. With Iowa State University’s strength in agricultural and animal science and the University of Iowa’s prowess in medical research, one has to wonder how the state has achieved such a low ranking.

Data from the National Science Foundation from 2011 indicate that the UI, Iowa State, and the University of Northern Iowa spent a combined $715 million on research and development, a sliver of Iowa’s 2011 Gross Domestic Product of $149 billion. The most recent available data from the Iowa Department of Revenue from 2007 show that about two-thirds of spending on research and development comes from private businesses.

Sectors in which Iowa hopes to grow its economy — including renewable energy such as ethanol and wind — rely heavily on research conducted in the state. Renewable energy sources recently have provided more of Iowa’s total energy production, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy. In order to continue growing Iowa’s economy in the biotechnology, agriculture, and energy production fields, investment in research must continue to increase.

Occupations relating to these industries require higher education at the community-college level and above. Jobs requiring a degree typically pay better, which could help Iowa recover from the loss of low-skill, middle-wage jobs to outsourcing and mechanization. The Chamber of Commerce report ranks Iowa as fifth in the nation in terms of “higher-education-degree output,” meaning that Iowans are ready to fill these higher-wage, technologically dependent jobs.

The state Board of Regents has recently voiced concerns about keeping college-educated people in Iowa. This is part of what motivated the regents to change the funding model for Iowa’s three state universities to depend on in-state student enrollment. Based on the new model, 5 percent of funding for the public universities will rely on the amount of sponsored research each conducts, while 60 percent depends on how many in-state students enroll at each institution. 

Given how critical research is to the mission of the UI and ISU, and to the future of Iowa’s economy, funding to these universities should be more dependent on the amount of research they do. Future research in the STEM fields could accomplish the goal of keeping college-educated workers in Iowa by providing more in-state jobs and opportunities in their respective scientific fields.

Promoting STEM occupations, both in educational and business settings, is imperative to moving Iowa’s economy in a direction consistent with the vision that many of the state’s politicians profess to hold. Developing advancements in alternative energy sources and other technologies related to STEM fields would result in more high-wage jobs, something the ongoing economic recovery struggles to produce.

Iowa is succeeding in a number of economic fields, but there’s more room to grow, especially in areas of research and development.

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