Editorial | Published:

In pursuit of balance

    Sunbelt states that have boomed economically should eventually earn a larger slice of the research pie.

    In the past quarter-century, economic and political clout in the United States has shifted markedly towards the south and the mountain west. Yet research dollars remain heavily concentrated in other parts of the country (see page 10). This creates an imbalance that political leaders and university presidents in states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona are now working energetically to address.

    When the existing structure of US research came into being after the Second World War, the lion's share of grant funding flowed to the most powerful universities of that era — almost all of them on the east coast, in the midwest and in California. Since then, the distribution of economic activity and population in the country has shifted. But the most powerful research departments are still concentrated in the same places.

    To a large extent, that is as it should be. The greatest strength of the US system is its meritocracy, with grants distributed on the basis of a robust peer-review system. Another is its diversity: there are at least a dozen agencies that support significant amounts of university research. And the system has a third strength, commonly misdiagnosed as weakness: the occasional willingness of Congress to fund specific projects directly. Used selectively, this process corrects the natural tendency of research dollars always to accumulate in the same places. Over time, these strengths will fuel the growth of top-flight research in the sunbelt states. For governors such as Florida's Jeb Bush, such growth can't come quickly enough.

    There are many ways to encourage it. The best place to start is perhaps by establishing a robust public university. Arizona has fared well in this regard. But the more fragmented systems in Florida and Texas have struggled to attain the status to which the third- and fourth-largest states in the union must aspire.

    Then there's the ‘big bang’ approach, as exemplified by Governor Bush's plan to invest a cool half-billion dollars in a branch of Scripps Research Institute at Palm Beach. There is some scepticism about the likely benefits of this plan, with critics saying that too many regions are banking on biotechnology as an economic engine. But Scripps Florida is not without logic. The original Scripps in La Jolla, after all, laid the foundation of the University of California at San Diego — now a research powerhouse. It is surely right for Florida and other states to aim high, and to aggressively pursue a larger slice of the science pie.

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