Billions and billions

December 26, 2007

At nearly $1.5 billion, the Johns Hopkins University led the nation's academic centers in funding for medical, science and engineering research for the 28th straight year in 2006, and it was tops for federally supported research and development, too, according to recent reports. The University of Maryland, Baltimore earned 35th place on the overall list, with $405.2 million, and the University of Maryland, College Park was 43rd with $354.2 million in private and public research dollars.

Those numbers should serve as a reminder that science and innovation are a key - perhaps the key - component of Maryland's economic future. No offense to horse breeding and training, but for all the recent wrangling over how many hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent underwriting the failing racing industry, it's amazing how state policymakers can lose sight of that fact.

Few states are better positioned for the brain-powered new economy. Maryland ranks either first or second in the nation for the percentage of professional and technical workers in the work force, for its concentration of scientists and engineers, and for the relative number of workers with graduate and professional degrees. Our best economic development asset is that human capital.

With its 29,000 employees, Johns Hopkins is easily the Baltimore area's single largest private employer, with research and development projects as varied as the advanced prosthetics being developed at the Applied Physics Lab and the Wilmer Eye Institute's pioneering work in glaucoma detection.

But how well are institutions such as Hopkins finding commercial applications for their research? Not nearly so successfully. The Association of University Technology Managers recently ranked Hopkins 21st in the nation in licensing income with $13.9 million annually. That's good, but an academic institution that leads the country in research funding ought to do better.

Hopkins officials say they've made great strides in technology transfer but agree that there's more they can do. State government could do a better job of investing in this opportunity as well.

The 9-year-old Maryland Technology Development Corp. the quasi-public agency created to promote technology transfer, needs a similar reinvigoration (and more money). Government investment in technology - like all forms of venture capital - is not without risks, but the rewards of such investment are far too high to ignore.

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