Discovery Economics: The Science Behind the Natural State
I often wonder how Arkansans view the state’s efforts to bolster innovation, support entrepreneurship and advance research activities. Growing up in Mena (technically Board Camp, but Mena is where we went for civilization), I know it wasn’t on my radar, and I don’t remember it being discussed at all. There were usually much more pressing needs that demanded attention.
Proximity to a subject breaks down barriers (real or perceived) and helps us frame it in the context of our everyday lives. This series of Discovery Economics articles seeks to highlight your fellow Arkansans, the important work they are doing and why their research matters to you.
The Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) Academy of Scholars and Fellows (Academy) is a group of researchers from the major research institutions in Arkansas. This includes five academic campuses plus the U.S. FDA National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). The university chancellors and executive director at NCTR identified these individuals as strategic hires (recruitment) or as leaders in strategic areas (retention). Note that I used the word “strategic” for both cases, as it is critical to focus on existing and emerging areas of strength.
The ARA Academy currently has 32 members, and their personal and professional backgrounds are highly diverse. They range from growing up in a city of fewer than 600 in southern Arkansas, to visiting and never wanting to leave. Their research ranges from theoretical work in understanding quantum physics to helping Arkansas farmers maximize crop production. The common thread is that they live here, they work here, and they all want to have a positive impact on their communities, their state and the disciplines they are passionate about.
The recent Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy report, authored by Heartland Forward and commissioned by the Governor’s Task Force for Economic Recovery, highlighted the importance of research to the Arkansas economy. While the order and number of items in the report don’t necessarily indicate a ranking, it is telling that “Innovation and Research” is the second major topic (after Workforce Development), and the word “research” shows up over 130 times. The word “research” shares an equivalent size to the word “business” in a word cloud (trust me, I checked). Those two words complement each other well because the business successes of tomorrow often starts with the leading research of today.
This direct connection between research and impact is evident in the stories already shared in this column. The efforts range from Dr. Min Zou’s (University of Arkansas) research that has resulted in a low-friction chain lube for cycling, to Dr. Nitin Agarwal’s (UA Little Rock) efforts to track online misinformation, to Dr. Argelia Lorence’s (Arkansas State) work to improve the performance of rice under changing nighttime conditions, to Dr. Rebecca Lochmann’s (UAPB) progress on developing optimized feed for farm-raised fish, to Dr. Mark Smeltzer’s (UAMS) developments in fighting Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) infections.
In the coming months we will get to explore efforts underway at NCTR. Each story touches on the globally competitive research being done right here in Arkansas.
The success of these individuals touches many lives. There are the beneficiaries of the research discoveries (farmers with a higher yield, patients with better health outcomes or you speeding by your favorite rival on your science-enhanced bike), and there are also all those who get to experience the scientific discovery along the way. This includes students (from high school to graduate school) who will become the research leaders of tomorrow. It also includes the businesses and entrepreneurs who end up building products or services to deliver the value of research to the end consumer.
Many Arkansans may not realize that a career in scientific research or starting a small business around a breakthrough discovery is a possible career choice for themselves or their children. I certainly didn’t until I heard stories of others who chose that path.
If you are anything like me, it takes hearing something several times before it is internalized. I want everyone to know that you can do great things, and you can do them in Arkansas. As director of the ARA Academy, my role is simple (but not easy): Help a diverse set of world-class researchers expand their impact in the directions that are important to them personally. This is accomplished by supporting efforts to secure funding for basic research, promoting industry engagement opportunities, helping expand opportunities for early career researchers in their labs and exploring small business formation around their technologies when the time is right.
Universally, each Academy member incorporates an aspect of economic development in their mission, whether they think of it in those terms or not. My life is an example of how the investments we make in innovation, entrepreneurship and research excellence can reach those in even our smallest communities if the stories reach people at the right time.
Looking ahead, as the investment in advancing research continues to compound in Arkansas, and as the ARA Academy continues to grow, I still wonder what Arkansans think of the efforts. I know that we, on average, would be excited by them if only the stories were made available and communicated effectively.
The State Science & Technology Institute (SSTI) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving initiatives that support prosperity through science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. A 2020 poll of Arkansans around investments in these areas found 96 percent of respondents agreeing that they can have a positive impact on the economy, 93 percent agreeing that they expanded opportunities for the next generation and 72 percent agreeing that they can open opportunities for them personally.
It is happening, we need more of it, and I am thrilled that the Academy members have a chance to share their stories with you.