This fourth piece in a 5-article series, adapted from a speech I gave at a BritishAmerican Business virtual conference last month, argues for investing in our universities and research centers. While returns may be beyond the immediate horizon, we need to be making new investments, rather than chasing after a limited set of investments and creating asset bubbles. In the speech, I talked about the concept of Inclusive Capitalism and how, put into action, it can penetrate all areas of society. Other areas of inquiry included the role it plays in cities and housing, bold collaborations, a proposed rethink of GDP metrics, and a call to use the pandemic shutdown as a chance for reflection and wise, sustainable investment.
While the history of gargantuan scientific leaps appears to be punctuated by solitary geniuses—Newton, Curie and Einstein, to mention a few—I’d argue that it’s almost always the case that universities have provided the environment for these mavericks to flourish. But at the same time, the world of higher education has also provided fertile ground for thousands of less well known, but no less vital researchers who have worked constantly at discoveries that keep society moving up the next rung of the evolutionary ladder. Their work is pivotal to humankind’s progress.
Without the world-class research that’s being done daily at our universities, it would be hard to imagine where else certain important discoveries and solutions—particularly those that don’t yield an obvious near-term, tangible financial return on investment—could be tackled. Yet post-doctoral researchers and other invisible heroes supporting household name professors and Nobel prizewinners alike, need an infrastructure—including somewhere affordable to live, modern laboratory facilities in which to work, and working connectivity. But their work is rarely associated with the instant returns of, say, a unicorn-type investment. As anyone in research would tell you, often the rewards for such breakthroughs could be decades away. Two examples that come to mind are the type of research that would enable the aged not only to live longer, but to enjoy a higher quality of life; and the research focused on reversing climate change.
In our current economic system, we can measure economic activity through GDP growth, even if it is an incomplete metric. However, we still don’t have any way to aggregate and measure the potential economic growth that universities can produce as their research is freed, scaled, and commercialized. If there were, there is no doubt that more of us would be investing in university research.
I’ve previously mentioned asset bubbles and the propensity of many people in today’s market to chase a “sure return”—in the process bidding up the price of particular assets beyond their own structural ability to create returns. In a nutshell, this is the conundrum of justifying certain market-assigned stock values. Instead, I believe it’s not only prudent, but in the long run more profitable to look for new