Research improves education, creates jobs and steers youth toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, all while increasing our society's knowledge and elevating our communities.The 1950s through the 1970s, for example, mark one of the most prosperous eras in the history of the Kanawha Valley, a result of Union Carbide's strong influence, which created more than 30,000 patents and brought some of the brightest minds in the world to West Virginia.Research and innovation are fundamental pillars in any economic development strategy. Private companies, states and countries that do not invest in research and innovation will wither and deteriorate.Each day, research happens around West Virginia. It's not as much as we would hope, but private companies, along with specific projects like the West Virginia Regional Technology Park, the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center (MATRIC), and initiatives seeded by the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation are all examples of supporting or conducting research. Research is also being conducted at universities and colleges throughout the state.
Research occurring at our higher education institutions helps attract world-class researchers who can make a lasting impact. We also know that research can lead to innovations, that when commercialized, lead to new capital investments, new jobs and a diversified tax base. Many times, people think of research and innovation only as new products, but often times, innovation can improve existing processes and technology.In addition, home-grown startup companies come to fruition and new businesses are attracted to West Virginia because of our state's encouragement of innovation. All of this provides a return on investment in the form of new tax dollars and much-needed job opportunities.
Despite the compelling evidence of the returns on research investments, dollars for research are currently in jeopardy at the state level during this legislative session. Funding for research, specifically the Research Challenge Fund, is a potential target as lawmakers look for ways to fill budget holes. The Research Challenge Fund is managed by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission's Division of Science and Research. Through the fund, the commission receives 0.5 percent of the state's income from video lottery proceeds. This money allows the commission to give awards and grants to our state colleges and universities — who use the money to further research and support students' experiences and education.However, Senate Bill 385 and House Bill 4333, which are currently pending in the West Virginia Legislature, would permanently reduce by 15 percent the amount of lottery funds that go into the Research Challenge Fund. These budget cuts would do very little to plug state budget holes (only yielding about $421,000), but they would have a truly significant effect on investments that can and must be made in our state's future. The Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce works to attract new jobs and investments to West Virginia. It helps businesses accelerate profitability and strive to develop the talent and resources that promote success and opportunity for everyone in our state. If these cuts are allowed, I have no doubt that, a clear message will be sent to the rest of the world that innovation and research are not important in West Virginia. Is that how we really want to be viewed?As we struggle to move into a new more diversified economy, West Virginia should be investing more in research and innovation.Please urge your representatives today to fund research programs and oppose cuts to the Research Challenge Fund — and allow research to fuel our economic growth. We must actively ask our legislators to think about the future and not be held hostage to the crisis of the moment.Matthew Ballard is president and CEO of the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce.