What’s On My Mind: America’s partnership with its research universities fuels our common future

This regular column is aimed at opening another channel of conversation with you about the opportunities and challenges we face, together as the faculty, staff and leaders of our great university.

Vanderbilt University is committed to serving humanity—we teach, we discover, we cure, we innovate. Our ability to meet this commitment has long been fueled by a historic and lasting partnership between America’s research universities and the federal government.

Budget discussions for the next fiscal year are underway in Washington, D.C., and robust federal support for research and education is in question. (Read Chancellor Zeppos’ statement on the proposed 2019 federal budget.)  As always, we are monitoring closely and advocating for the role of universities as engines of innovation. While it’s not clear yet what the outcome of those discussions and other policy debates affecting universities will be, what is clear is how much progress our country has made due to long-term investments in research and education. Here at Vanderbilt, with the support of federal funding, our researchers, scholars and students collaborate every day examining questions large and small and making important, life-changing discoveries.

We develop therapies for devastating diseases. Thanks to strategic investments in drug discovery and support from federal research agencies for more than a decade, Vanderbilt has gained steady ground in the fight against cancer and brain disorders. Stephen Fesik and his collaborators across several Vanderbilt institutes and centers are developing new therapies for leukemia and colorectal cancer and are making progress on new treatments for breast and liver cancer.

Upending the typical bench-to-market model, last year with the support of a National Institutes of Health National Cooperative Drug Discovery/Development grant, the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery moved a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease into early clinical trials, bypassing the need for a pharmaceutical company partner. VCNDD scientists have developed specialized therapies for Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Universities like Vanderbilt are increasingly the front line of defense in fighting these diseases in the wake of the closure of neuroscience and brain drug divisions at many pharmaceutical companies. I expect that every person on this campus has at least a family connection, if not a personal connection, with cancer or one of these brain disorders, and stands to benefit in some way from this research.

We develop vaccines and treatments for deadly diseases. James Crowe, Vanderbilt’s top vaccine researcher, is on the hunt for a universal influenza vaccine. This year alone, the flu has already impacted millions of Americans and led to thousands of deaths. If Crowe is successful, the universal flu vaccine would likely be one of this century’s most important medical breakthroughs. The findings also could lead to new advances for treating more lethal diseases like Zika, Ebola and HIV. NIH funding has been essential to this work, and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in Crowe’s lab make critical contributions to this research every day.

Our innovations change people’s lives. Engineer Michael Goldfarb develops robotic adaptive equipment for people with disabilities, including a powered exoskeleton that he developed with his former graduate student Ryan Farris, which helps people who are paralyzed stand and walk. NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research are among the funding agencies that have chosen to invest in Goldfarb and his colleague Karl Zelik’s work and the promise that it holds. Vanderbilt graduate student Sinead Miller is developing a blood-filtering device that can prevent the onset of sepsis, a potentially fatal infection that accounts for billions of dollars in hospital care each year. Her work is made possible with Department of Defense funding targeted to help soldiers who came home from Iraq and Afghanistan with drug-resistant bacteria.

It is in support of these and myriad other research endeavors happening on our campus and at academic research institutions across the country that we are advocating that Congress continue its long history of bipartisan support for research.

Robust investment in research universities fuels the economy, locally and nationally. Our most recent economic impact study showed that Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center together generate an economic impact of more than $9.5 billion and support 63,500 jobs—that’s another $3.8 billion in labor income—that drives our state, our region and our nation forward.

America’s great academic research universities are deeply embedded in our nation’s story. We are an integral part of America’s future success and prosperity.

If we want to keep America strong and on the path to greatness, we must work together to share the news of our breakthroughs to ensure that higher education and scientific research remain a key funding priority.

“What’s On My Mind” is a regular column from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on the life, people and mission of Vanderbilt University and issues affecting higher education today. Share your thoughts at