It’s time to help Texas become a national research leader

Ronald DePinho, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, visiting labs on the south campus in Houston Monday Sept 30, 2013. Photo by Michael Stravato

Historically, accolades and attention for major scientific research have gone to the two coasts in the United States, with big-name universities on the East Coast and federal research labs on the West attracting the majority of research funding and resources. But Texas is now emerging as the Third Coast of scientific research and innovation.

University of Texas at Austin researchers have found a way to potentially double the amount of bandwidth that is usable in wireless communications, a likely telecommunications breakthrough. In cancer research, Jim Allison’s work in immunology at MD Anderson, recognized this year with a Lasker Award, found that our own immune systems can be used to fight cancer. And thanks to Nobel Laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, we now know more about the genetic factors causing heart disease and the best way to target them.

This surge in scientific discovery in Texas wouldn’t be possible without state and federal support. The state-funded Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has awarded over a billion dollars in grants, helping to recruit some of the top cancer researchers in the world. In 2011, our organization, The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST), gained a record number of new members, many through grants for recruiting top cancer researchers to Texas’ research and treatment centers.

But the Lone Star State faces serious challenges in becoming a top-tier research destination. For one, we’re paying to educate our students here, only to have them move to other states for college. Texas loses a net of more than 8,600 graduating high school students each year — making it the fourth-worst state for "brain drain." These are promising young Texas minds that could be a part of the next research wave, but Texas’ top universities don’t have enough room for them.

Our state has just three Tier One universities that are members of the Association of American Universities, a designation awarded to schools that make substantial investments in research, have faculty that are Nobel Laureates or members of the National Academies, and award a large number of doctorate degrees. California has nine Tier One schools Texas, with a population only a third larger. New York has six Tier One universities but a population a third smaller than Texas.

More Tier One universities would mean more research and venture capital dollars coming to Texas, more jobs in the research sector and a better return on the state’s investments in education. California has more than double the amount of federal research dollars per capita than Texas. And Texas is a low-performing state when it comes to attracting venture capital, falling well behind California, Massachusetts and New York.

In order to have more top-tier universities, higher education in Texas will need more support, funding and capacity. The state Legislature recognized the need for more Tier One universities by passing a bill in 2009 to help seven state universities achieve that status. It was a good start, but more will be necessary.

There are some encouraging signs. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law the Governor’s University Research Initiative, a program that will provide funding to help recruit Nobel Laureates and National Academies members to come to Texas for their work.

And this fall, our organization convened a new summit that gathered federal research agencies and the state’s leading researchers together to help make Texas research institutions more competitive in seeking federal funding for research, which would lead to increased job growth and stronger research programs at major academic and industrial institutions.

While Texas has proven itself as a leader in science and innovation, competition for research funding is unrelenting. To continue its forward momentum, Texas will need to do a better job of cultivating a top-tier research environment, where the world’s brightest can do their best work.

Gordon England

Board member, The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas