The Research Challenge
Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the wealthiest areas in the country are often home to our very best universities -- the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas in California, Cambridge and Boston in Massachusetts, and the “Research Triangle” area of North Carolina. Those places are home to the likes of Stanford University; the University of California at Berkeley; Cal Tech, Harvard, MIT, the University of North Carolina, and Duke.
All of these schools feature the most able students being mentored by the world’s best professors, especially in engineering and the physical sciences.
They have another thing in common: Focus. They do what they do superbly, but they don’t try to do everything. You can’t study journalism at Cal Tech.
But from where does the wealth surrounding these schools come? The schools didn’t spring up in those places because the areas were rich; the prosperity often comes from successful businesses started by professors and their students.
The potential economic importance of this to states like Ohio has been underscored by something happening since the pandemic: Undergraduate enrollment across the nation has been plummeting. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment has declined 5.1 percent, which means 938,000 fewer students began higher education in the fall of 2021 than two years before. That drop is one of the largest in at least the last 50 years, according to Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse.
Enrollment numbers were in decline even before this, but Covid merely accelerated a decade-long trend partly because the number of young adults in the country has been dropping.
All this should put new focus on Ohio’s longtime decision to put most of its emphasis on undergraduate vs. graduate education, and opting to fund many mostly similar institutions without focusing at the graduate level, or even addressing the question seriously just what is it that makes institutions with strong graduate programs in the physical sciences and engineering economic drivers for their region? Shouldn’t we be asking whether the past higher education policies make sense? Why is Ohio ignoring opportunities to improve its economic position relative to other states -- and maybe even help the United States compete with the world? Sadly, the state has seemed incapable of managing for excellence.
Since 2007 it has managed its universities politically. Ohio universities are mostly average, and the same, when evaluated next to those in the earlier paragraphs, except for Ohio State (which calls itself The Ohio State University) on which the General Assembly showers money, perhaps because they and it are located in the same town.
Perhaps even worse, Ohio universities have been negligent in recognizing technology. Liquid crystal science began with Glenn Brown at Kent State, who started a liquid crystal institute in 1965. But Ohio didn’t know what it had and soon lost the chance to be an industry leader. Liquid crystal technology - the thing that makes tv screens - and the businesses it spawned were soon surpassed by schools on the west coast, Korea, and Japan.
We’ve missed other chances. We need to take charge and force expansion of the graduate and research efforts in the photochemical sciences the interaction of light with matter … We should turn northwest Ohio into the Nation’s ‘energy belt.’ We have had some successes with technology transfer from universities nearby to the private sector. In part, that’s due to because of something I created, the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Over the years of its existence, its faculty and students built at least 10 new research-based businesses, including Lumigen, Ultrafast Systems, my own Spectra Group, and more.
They were focused on areas where they could sell new things that together, have created hundreds of jobs. Nurture businesses like these in this area, create a few more, include the late Harold McMaster’s First Solar, and the Toledo area could be on its way to being a photo energy capital of the world.
But we need to make changes. We should start by having the state help certain universities build up selected research strengths where these are found. For too long, higher education in Ohio has been governed by former Gov. Jim Rhodes’ outdated notion that we need a university within 16 miles of any student’s home.
Even if that made sense in 1962, it makes none in 2022.
Economically, Ohio is falling further and further behind.
We need to rethink graduate education, especially in the molecular sciences and engineering. There are some good signs if they mean what they portend: The recent announcement by Intel to build in the area of the former Owens Corning research center is one, though it still is to be determined is how much this will benefit Ohio’s research community.
The late Paul Block, Jr, who was both a publisher and an organic chemist, believed, as I do, that Ohio should separate its focused important research units from the undergraduate universities. Through Paul’s efforts, the medical school, now UTMC, was kept separate from a university for many, many years. We need, now, a separate graduate research community that will generate centers of excellence to have long-term consequences. The energy sector and an institute to study viral diseases would be good places to start.
Ohio’s private research universities – Case Western Reserve, for example – haven’t been doing that much world-class work either. Candidly doing research in the physical sciences at these places is too expensive. We should bring them in as partners to strengthen what we all are capable of doing.
So … how do we make this happen?. Well, we have a statewide election this fall: Let’s ask the candidates how they would strengthen Ohio’s research base and improve graduate education in the physical sciences, and engineering, with an eye towards creating the new jobs of the future. We need to invest some of the funds that are going to industrial relocation to growing established centers of excellence. Let’s break our economic decline and end the long winter of mediocrity. We know we can do better. We need 21st-century businesses here, and we need to get started now.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.