Why research universities like UMass matter

They drive innovation, spur change, bolster economy

AS THE LAUNCHING pad for discoveries that have cured diseases, taken us to distant reaches of the universe, and brought sophisticated technological devices to our fingertips, research universities are responsible for much of America’s past success and are essential to its future.

Research universities are working to protect the environment and confront climate change. They stand against social and economic inequality and are working to end the COVID-19 pandemic and protect us from pandemics to come.

It is critical – for both our economy and our democracy – that these 280 national treasures remain strong and vibrant.

Consider the University of Massachusetts, which includes five campuses recognized for their research accomplishments. From its earliest days, UMass has conducted high-level research essential to meeting its special obligation to the Commonwealth and nation.

Levi Stockbridge, a founding professor of the original agricultural college in Amherst, is credited with “transforming farming into a modern science” by inventing crop-specific fertilizers. The college’s first president, Henry Flagg French, created a field-drainage system so effective that it’s still used today.

More than a century and a half later, the spirit of what once was a 56-student agricultural college flows through today’s 75,000-student, five-campus university system.

As we face daunting challenges close to home and around the world, the University of Massachusetts – the Commonwealth’s only public research university – is engaged in a relentless quest to unlock answers and fashion solutions.

Research taking place on the campuses of the UMass system has global impact, saves lives, and helps drive our state’s innovation economy.

Over these past two years, our campuses have waged an all-out battle against a pandemic that has claimed so many lives and redefined daily life. It’s an ongoing effort.

Recently, scientists from UMass Amherst, led by Chemistry Professor Craig Martin, were selected to take part in a $60 million project aimed at making the immense power of RNA-based vaccines and therapeutics more readily available worldwide.

RNA’s potential as a landscape-altering medical tool was revealed by Nobel Prize-winning research conducted by UMass Chan Medical School Professor Craig Mello and his collaborator, Stanford University research scientist Andrew Fire.

Our medical school continues to blaze trails, with UMass Chan Professor Katherine Fitzgerald and her team working to develop a treatment targeting the most severe forms of COVID-19. Research conducted at the medical school also aided in the development of at least one of the mRNA-based Covid vaccines.

Our campuses in Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell have developed COVID tests, provided important information about how the virus is transmitted, and are exploring ways to freeze-dry COVID vaccines to make them more transportable.

The university’s research faculty – and student researchers – are active on many other fronts.

At UMass Lowell, researchers are taking on health challenges like Alzheimer’s Disease and breast cancer.

While our research and innovation portfolio is global in scope, we maintain a strong focus on Massachusetts and its needs.

UMass Dartmouth is conducting research important to the local fishing industry and to the effort to build the nation’s first commercial-scale windfarm in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

UMass Boston is seeking to improve social and educational outcomes for immigrant children and families – and seeks to protect the Boston area from rising tides and other impacts associated with climate change.

As president and as a UMass graduate, I take immense pride in the university’s commitment and accomplishments. I’m proud to see that UMass is a national R&D leader, conducting nearly $700 million in annual research and generating $50 million by licensing its technology to companies that create new products and new jobs.

Of course, education is our primary mission. We will always be the public research university that educates the sons and daughters of Massachusetts – as well as students from beyond our borders. We will continue to produce graduates (a record 19,000 graduates last year) who live and work in Massachusetts.

UMass was created to transform lives and create a better future for Massachusetts – and the world. This has been our mission since the beginning – and it’s a mission that we readily embrace, and our colleagues across the nation embrace.

As former Columbia University Provost Jonathan R. Cole has written, research universities are “engines of innovation and discovery that now drive a large part of the economic growth and social change in the United States.” Research universities, Cole notes, produce “discoveries that change our lives and the world.”

Meet the Author

Marty Meehan

President, University of Massachusetts
Our faculty and students answer that call every day.

Marty Meehan is the president of the University of Massachusetts.