Four floors above a dull cinder-block lobby in a nondescript building at the Ohio State University, the doors of a slow-moving elevator open on an unexpectedly futuristic 10,000-square-foot laboratory bristling with technology. It’s a reveal reminiscent of a James Bond movie. In fact, the researchers who run this year-old, $750,000 lab at OSU’s Spine Research Institute resort often to Hollywood comparisons.
Thin beams of blue light shoot from 36 of the same kind of infrared motion cameras used to create lifelike characters for films like Avatar. In this case, the researchers are studying the movements of a volunteer fitted with sensors that track his skeleton and muscles as he bends and lifts. Among other things, they say, their work could lead to the kind of robotic exoskeletons imagined in the movie Aliens.
The cutting-edge research here combines the expertise of the university’s medical and engineering faculties to study something decidedly commonplace: back pain, which affects as many as eight out of every 10 Americans, accounts for more than 100 million annual lost workdays in the United States alone, and has accelerated the opioid addiction crisis.
“The growth of the technology around us has become so familiar that we don’t question where it comes from,” says Bruce McPheron, an entomologist and the university’s executive vice president and provost, looking on. “And where it happens consistently is at a university.”
But university research is in trouble, and so is an economy more dependent on it than many people understand. Federal funding for basic research—more than half of it conducted on university campuses like this one—has effectively declined since 2008, failing to keep pace with inflation. This is before taking into account Trump administration proposals to slash the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets by billions of dollars more.
Trump’s cuts would affect all research universities, but not equally. The problem is more pronounced at public universities than private ones, and especially at public institutions in the Midwest, which have historically conducted some of the nation’s most important research. These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor. Yet many flagship Midwestern research universities are being weakened by deep state budget cuts. Threats to pensions (in Illinois) and tenure (in Wisconsin) portend an exodus of faculty and their all-important research funding, and have already resulted in a frenzy of poaching by better-funded and higher-paying private institutions, industry, and international competitors.
While private institutions are better shielded from funding cuts by huge endowments, Midwestern public universities have much thinner buffers. The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times. They also have robust revenues from high tuitions, wealthy alumni donors, strong credit, and other support to fall back on. Compare that to the public university system in Illinois, which has cut its higher-education budget so deeply that Moody’s downgraded seven universities, including five to junk-bond status.
This ominous reality could widen regional inequality, as brainpower, talent, and jobs leave the Midwest and the Rust Belt—where existing economic decline may have contributed to the decisive shift of voters toward Donald Trump—for places with well-endowed private and better-funded public universities. Already, some Midwestern universities have had to spend millions from their battered budgets to hang on to research faculty being lured away by wealthier schools. A handful of faculty have already left, taking with them most if not all of their outside funding.