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President's Perspecitve

  • Author:
    Lou Anna K. Simon
  • Published:
    Spring 2011

Michigan State University’s roots in research run almost as deep as the founding of the institution itself in 1855. Congress established the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, the same year as the signing of the Morrill “Land-Grant” Act. Development of our curriculum in the subsequent years reflected that new emphasis on scientific research in botany, entomology and related agricultural disciplines.

The Hatch Act of 1887 helped carve out a “pure” research niche for land-grant colleges, establishing funding for agricultural experiment stations during a period when budget pressures had prompted concerns here about continuing an experimental program altogether. Now-familiar names such as Miles, Kedzie and Beal helped demonstrate the wisdom of the scientific approach alongside the practical teaching and outreach developing at Michigan State in its early years.

Today we are one of 63 members of the Association of American Universities, which are regarded as the top research-intensive universities in North America. We are among the top 100 research universities listed in the highly regarded Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings. And we sit among the top 50 universities in the world based on research performance, publications and citations as ranked by the University of Western Australia. Our intimate connection to our stakeholders in Michigan and around the world has always grounded our research in the practical, but to excel at knowledge discovery requires that we plant our other foot in the basic, “pure” realm of research.

I need only point to our top-ranked nuclear physics program and the $615 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) now under development on campus to illustrate the confidence placed in us by our peers and the government to generate cutting-edge knowledge. Even the brightest minds sometimes can only guess at the practical applications of a discovery. The laser is a famous case of a technology once in search of a use.

Today, new technologies including gene sequencing are beginning to open doors that might lead to more effective medical treatments and vastly improved quality of life. Someone has to pay for the science that pushes out the boundaries. The federal government funded 57 percent of all U.S. basic science research in 2008, while business funded 18 percent, and universities and colleges themselves supported 15 percent. But when a panel of business and academic leaders appointed by the National Academies last year revisited its seminal 2005 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” they found national research-linked competitiveness at even greater risk today from international competition and rising financial concerns.

For our part, we’re redoubling our efforts to attract research funding by attacking some of the world’s most pressing problems, including food and water security and energy sustainability. We’re also working diligently to make participation in meaningful research part of the MSU undergraduate experience. Such projects are showcased at the annual University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum, which last year featured 535 students and 282 faculty mentors from 14 colleges. This year’s UURAF is scheduled for April 8 at the MSU Union.


Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph.D.

President, Michigan State University