Florida universities are making progress in expanding their research and development efforts but there is room for improvement, according to a new report from the Florida Council of 100.
“The State University System Board of Governors has really moved the R & D ball forward over the past few years, but there’s room to make a good system even better,” said Lee Arnold, chairman of the Council’s Higher Education Committee.
The council’s report cited a deficiency in converting university research into commercial products, which, through licensing agreements, provide funding for the schools and researchers.
According to the report, Florida only generated a 2 percent return on licensing income from $2.4 billion in annual research spending at the state’s public universities and the University of Miami in 2015. As a result, the report ranked Florida, the nation’s third-largest state, 17th in the nation for the rate of return on research spending.
The report noted that Florida universities have had some “home runs” when it comes to commercialization, including the development of the sports drink Gatorade at the University of Florida in 1965 and Taxol, a synthetic drug used for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, at Florida State University in the 1990s.
But in order to improve the research efforts, the council’s report made three general recommendations, including recruiting more “rock star” faculty and staff, building “robust” research and development and enhancing the commercialization mission.
“Research and development is a tremendous economic driver for the state,” said Pat Geraghty, chairman of the Council of 100. “We must continue to focus on public-private research collaboration as a means of creating jobs and wealth for all Floridians.”
The Council of 100 is a private, nonpartisan group of business, civic and academic leaders that periodically offers recommendations on improving the quality of life and the business climate in Florida.
The council’s report also notes that Florida is already taking steps to enhance its research efforts in the higher-education system.
Gov. Rick Scott last month signed a new law that codifies programs aimed at helping state universities recruit top-level researchers and improve professional and graduate schools. The Legislature increased funding for the programs, which began last year, with $151 million slated for the initiatives in the next academic year.
The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, has also made research and development a top priority, and last month approved a two-year work plan aimed at those efforts.
University officials have identified some key areas to concentrate research in, including health issues, big data, advanced manufacturing, marine and coastal sciences and cybersecurity.
The BOG is also developing a “dashboard” of 17 key measurements to keep track of research and development progress in the system. The measures include items such as the number of patents awarded for university research, doctoral degrees granted and faculty members who are National Academy members in science, engineering and medicine.
The university system will also hold its sixth annual workshop in Washington, D.C., this October, where the Florida schools will meet with federal agencies that provide research funding. The council’s report notes that Florida is the only state that makes that effort.
“As a system we have really elevated this topic in a way that a lot of states haven’t,” Jan Ignash, the vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said at a BOG meeting last month.
In the 2016-17 academic year, Florida’s state universities, excluding the University of Miami, had $2.2 billion in research and development spending, which was a 25-percent increase over a five-year period, Ignash said. She also said the system is on course to meet its goal of spending $2.29 billion in research and development by 2025.
Ignash said some 43 percent of the universities’ research and development funding comes from federal agencies, representing $948 million in 2016-17.
She also noted Florida ranked fourth among public university systems in research and development funding, trailing only California, Texas and Michigan.
Alan Levine, chairman of the BOG’s newly created Academic and Research Excellence Committee, said he expects his committee to hear from the Council of 100 about its report on research and development in June.
In addition to the report, the council also issued a related study that compiled 100 recommendations about improving higher-education research efforts in Florida, based on surveys from researchers and other officials at the state schools and the University of Miami.