Op-Ed: NJ’s Universities Are Key to Innovation and Prosperity

Dean J. Paranicas | October 3, 2016 | Opinion
The research capabilities of our universities are essential to the vitality of our innovation ecosystem and ability to continue to compete effectively

Dean J. Paranicas
New Jersey is the cradle of American innovation in such transformative fields as telecommunications, life sciences, and chemicals, and is home to many iconic companies. These industries have produced countless advances that have benefitted society enormously while driving our state’s economy for well over a century.

Much progress has been made in recent years to meet their needs and those of other industries and retain the substantial socioeconomic benefits New Jersey derives from a robust innovation economy.

Our academic community — spurred by the state’s 2012 restructuring of our higher education system intended to enhance our research infrastructure and reaffirm New Jersey as a global research hub — has become a powerful asset in this effort. It has helped New Jersey level the playing field to attract more industry investment and meet formidable competition from other states.

We have seen stepped-up activity across our universities that has created more opportunities for industry collaborations. Key to this has been their ongoing ability to attract and retain world-class researchers, engage in cutting-edge research, compete for federal research grants, and partner with innovator industries on sponsored research.

However, the momentum we’ve developed has the potential of stalling if this framework — so painstakingly cultivated — is not sustained. This could be an unintended consequence of challenges to property-tax exemptions across New Jersey’s nonprofit community (including higher-education institutions) that threaten to divert resources from their salutary mission-related activities.

In the higher education context, the challenge to our universities revolves around the characteristics of their research programs (as illustrated by the first such case brought involving Princeton University). If advancing research, which is an essential component of a university’s mission, places at risk New Jersey universities’ property tax status, it would have a chilling effect on their ability and willingness to engage in these core activities that can turn new ideas into new products and services, new jobs and a stronger economy.

Such a result would put New Jersey’s economy, for more than 130 years rooted in research and innovation, at great risk of decline if innovator companies that long have called New Jersey home chose to collaborate and invest more with universities in other places that have become hotbeds of innovation.

We recognize them by their familiar labels — Silicon Valley and San Diego/La Jolla in California; Research Triangle in North Carolina; and the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts. Each has a well-developed “innovation ecosystem” that blends public, private, and academic sector engagement into a fertile environment to support innovation in multiple fields. Their renowned research universities — public and private — are the magnets for innovative companies that want to collaborate and advance the groundbreaking ideas that those institutions have to offer.

The research capabilities of New Jersey’s universities are essential to the vitality of our own innovation ecosystem and ability to continue to compete effectively against these locales. It’s therefore hard to envision that an outcome inconsistent with this objective would be a desired public policy for the state. Instead, for New Jersey to keep pace, we need a sustained, broad-based commitment to our universities as key engines of global innovation and state economic development.

The future of our state’s economy depends on it.

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