Why research universities matter

The following previously appeared in the Deseret News. 

COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of life as we know it, from education to the economy, work and worship, families and friends. As individuals, families and communities, we share the hope that we will soon have effective treatments for, and ultimately prevention of this disease so the people who matter most to us can resume their lives and thrive.

In this unprecedented time, we are reminded of the significance of a research university in a healthy, vibrant society. At the University of Utah, at least 100 research groups are currently studying causes and consequences of COVID-19. Virtually every entity at the U. is involved, including undergraduate students and staff who are assisting in and supporting research projects while working remotely.

For example, Utah research teams are developing and evaluating new ways to identify and combat the virus through sensors and wastewater, measure antibodies to detect prior exposure, model disease spread and mitigation, and discover novel therapeutics and vaccines. Scholars also are evaluating the mental health impacts of the pandemic on health care workers, students and vulnerable populations, and how we can ameliorate anxiety through innovative treatments.

As we look beyond immediate responses to the coronavirus, social scientists, communications specialists, and urban planners are studying long-term implications of this pandemic and how to address them. The Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Disease Initiative swiftly provided seed grant funding for promising studies; several groups have already secured federal funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The U. is partnering with Intermountain Healthcare to create a COVID-19 outpatient sample repository that will guide future studies. Researchers also are uniting with U. Advancement and generous donors to send much needed personal protective equipment to our frontline health care workers. This is exactly the role a leading research university should fill in a crisis.

ARUP Laboratories, a national nonprofit and academic reference lab, stemmed from research and innovation in the U’s Department of Pathology some 35 years ago. In the current crisis, ARUP is a key partner with the Utah Department of Health in rapidly ramping up testing for COVID-19. ARUP also has begun antibody testing, which will be instrumental in guiding our return to more typical business, educational and social operations.

University research activity also contributes in another significant way: It fuels the economy within a community, state and region. The U. secured nearly $550 million in support for research in FY2019. These funds support jobs in the state and are spent in every Utah county, as a recent report from the Gardner Institute highlighted. Thousands of undergraduate students—future educators, physicians, engineers, attorneys, psychologists, writers, chemists, climate scientists and business professionals—actively participate in research and generate new knowledge, learning directly from and with the nation’s leading scholars to help solve today’s challenges and, hopefully, limit or even prevent tomorrow’s problems.

We will prevail over COVID-19 because of research and discovery, much of it fueled by the innovation of university-based scholars. Our social, emotional and economic health will be restored based on discovery of effective interventions and strategies for safe behavior. Research will shape the safe reopening of our schools, churches, businesses and communities.

Clearly, the relevance of research is illuminated in a time of crisis. The reality is that our lives are improved every day, in ways both big and small, by the discovery, advancement and dissemination of knowledge generated by research universities.

The University of Utah, the state’s flagship public research university, has been identified as one of the country’s leading research universities by the Association of American Universities because of the scope and impact of our research. We collectively benefit from federal, state, corporate and private support of university-led research. This investment is good for our 32,000 students, the many jobs created by our research enterprise and for economic and public health in Utah.