Research drives state’s economy

EVERETT – The state’s two research universities need to work more closely with economic development councils and port districts around Washington to make sure that the technology developed on their campuses gets funneled to the entrepreneurs who can capitalize on it, the president of Washington State University said.

But putting that research to work will take an infusion of cash from the Legislature, WSU President V. Lane Rawlins told the Snohomish County Economic Development Council at its annual banquet Tuesday at the Everett Golf and Country Club.

“We sometimes feel we’ve gone from state-funded to state-assisted to state-abused,” Rawlins said. College tuition continues to increase, but cuts in state funding mean students are paying more and getting less, he said.

Rawlins used the occasion to promote a proposed joint budget for WSU and the University of Washington that would increase spending by between $150 million and $200 million in the next biennium – an increase of roughly 25 percent.

Higher education funding has fallen far behind in Washington, compared to other states, Rawlins said.

“This was not a bad place to be in the ’90s,” he said. “A lot of people made a lot of money. But we didn’t put it into higher education.”

As a result, the number of high school seniors continuing on to college has dropped – from 45 percent to 32 percent in the past decade – and Washington now ranks 45th per capita among states in the number of students earning four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Only four states spend less per capita for higher education research than Washington, – about $3 per person, compared to the national average of $8, Rawlins said. “And we kind of think of ourselves as a high-tech state, I believe.”

However, there are direct economic benefits to funding research universities, he said.

Professors at research universities expose students to cutting-edge knowledge too fresh for textbooks, Rawlins said. That’s key to training them to fill jobs in the high-tech work force.

“If you’re really going to prepare students for tomorrow, you can’t be teaching yesterday’s material,” he said.

WSU and UW also bring money into the state, Rawlins said. This year, the two schools will attract more than $3 billion in research grants, contracts and gifts – a 6-to-1 return on the $497 million state taxpayers funnel into them.

“The economic impact of that itself is big business,” he said. “That’s a billion-dollar business that doesn’t take any business away from other businesses.”

And the schools also generate new technologies that lead to new businesses, even new industries, Rawlins said. The fast-growing Washington wine industry, for example, owes its existence to research done by a WSU scholar in the 1930s and ’40s.

To improve on that record, WSU and UW are proposing the Legislature pump millions more into higher education.

The schools are asking for major increases in spending for new buildings – WSU needs new facilities for nursing in Spokane, for food science in the Tri-Cities and for research in Pullman, Rawlins said.

And along with increases to boost pay and student enrollment, the schools also seek “a couple million dollars” more for a joint office that would help transfer technology from their campuses to the business world.

“If you double our budgets, I think we can do twice as much,” Rawlins said.

Reporter Bryan Corliss: 425-339-3454 or

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