Dr. Subra Suresh, President, Carnegie Mellon University, discusses the impact universities have on the economy at a breakfast briefing sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
Dr. Subra Suresh, President, Carnegie Mellon University, discusses the impact universities have on the economy at a breakfast briefing sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Dr. Subra Suresh highlighted the role universities play as engines of innovation that help drive economic growth at a breakfast briefing for Pittsburgh Technology Council members.

Suresh, who is the recently appointed President at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and serves on the Team Pennsylvania Board of Directors, also discussed the disparity in national and foreign college enrollment and the way entrepreneurship impacts global innovation. (Both CMU and the council are Team PA investors.)

Suresh said global funding for research and development totaled $1.4 trillion dollars in 2012 with Asia surpassing the U.S. in total dollars spent.

“The Asian part is rapidly growing and is pretty remarkable,” Suresh said. “Last year, for the first time in research funding, the top 10 Asian countries invested more in R & D than the U.S.… Being an optimist, I would say it is not too late for us to fix this and get our act together.”

Suresh also outlined the growing chasm between the number of college students in Asia, Europe and the United States who are majoring in engineering and science-oriented disciplines, noting it is a problem with huge negative consequences for America. Another issue is the overall number of Chinese students entering college compared to their American counterparts.

“The absolute number is higher entering college; leaving college, those who majored in those fields involving advanced technological innovation,  is also much higher,” Suresh said. “Look to the future, the competition is very, very severe.”

Suresh noted universities and colleges should be focusing and committed to fostering and driving innovation throughout their institutions.

“You need institutions that foster and nurture innovation such as…overall professional ethics, respect for intellectual property, and protection of intellectual property,” Suresh said. “The U.S. and Europe are way ahead in this, some other developing countries are not there. Until they get there, one could argue, no matter how much money they put in, that they will not have permanent success, they may have temporary success.”

Suresh said this is an area where the United States still has a significant advantage, adding that that we must address how we continue to maintain that lead.

Suresh said government funding for R & D is critical to our nation’s economy.

Suresh, who is the past director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), testified before Congress this past March seeking $7.4 billion for R & D funding. That request, he said, did not sit well with one member of the Appropriations Committee who questioned the funding level request given the national debt.

Suresh said he told the committee that 204 Americans who have won the Nobel Peace prize and 70 percent of all the Nobel Laureates since 1950 have had at least a portion of their funding provided through the NSF.

“There is no other $7 billion spent in the history of humanity that has produced that level of return on investment and that funding is what fuels the United States’ R & D ecosystem,” Suresh said. “Put the $7 billion in context: last year, Americans spent $7 billion on potato chips. We spent $4.3 million on one night, Halloween night, on candy – and that is our annual investment in science funding for science and engineering for the National Science Foundation.”

Suresh noted public/private support for R & D at the university level is responsible for the discovery of many technological advances including Doppler radar, fiber optics and GPS.

Suresh also highlighted the human challenges associated with the introduction of new technology, the issue of big data and the many facets of entrepreneurship and how universities are poised to nurture and support entrepreneurs.
Suresh said Pittsburgh’s universities and its technology sector are well positioned to address these global issues.