We sports turf managers take research for granted. Every day there are hundreds of dedicated professionals and scientists working to find better ways for us to manage turfgrass and improve the quality of the fields we’re charged with. Sports fields are community assets that promote the common good, and these researchers are working to solve the most difficult issues in sports field and turfgrass management.

Much of our sports field knowledge base has roots in one of our great agricultural research universities. Consider just one example. In the early 1980s we saw a shift away from the first-generation artificial surfaces back to more natural grass fields. Can you imagine that? Some of us can remember artificial turf being ripped out all over the country and fields switched back to natural grass. This time, though, most high-profile fields installed a sand-based rootzone to address poor drainage issues and related field use limits inherent in the native soil natural grass fields up to that point.

Research at many of our great land-grant universities in the ’70s showed that it was possible to improve athletic field quality by using sand or modified sand rootzones in natural grass playing surfaces, much like what was being done on many golf greens. However, the work wasn’t finished. There were issues related to the surface stability and footing on sand-based fields, and it was sometimes difficult to cultivate turfgrass on sand and modified sand rootzones. This brought about more research in surface stability, sand-based fertility and cultural practices.

Research changes things slowly but steadily, and today you don’t see the blowouts on natural grass fields with sand-based rootzones that you sometimes saw in the ’80s and early ’90s.

Today, we turf managers take for granted the huge selection of grass species and varieties that have been developed in public and private turfgrass research facilities. Heck, it seems like every two years we have a new “magic” bermudagrass coming along to grow in Alaska and solve all our challenges as sports field managers.

Not too long ago, it was common bermudagrass in the South and pest-prone, early-variety Kentucky bluegrasses in the North, with few exceptions. High-quality, natural grass playing surfaces that lasted the entire season were rare. Hybrid bermudagrasses, disease-resistant Kentucky bluegrasses and the high-quality perennial ryegrasses so widely used today on sports fields all over the world would not be available to us without publicly funded research.

I could go on and on, but believe me, it’s a different and better world in sports field management today than it was just 25 years ago, due in large part to innovative thinking by brilliant scientists at tax-supported research universities. It’s the same with all industries. New knowledge promotes the general welfare.

In this emerging age of global economic competition, our biggest advantage is American innovation. This idea of public-supported research useful to industry is not counter to the American concept of limited government and low taxes. In fact, it is a uniquely American idea, 150 years old, that fueled an abundantly strong economic engine, and the national prosperity that followed. While private research is invaluable, there’s a certain needed academic freedom at the tax-supported research universities, at least that is the intent.

This brings into play certain ideals that cultivate fertile innovation, like freedom of inquiry, quality control through peer review, skepticism towards the accepted and claimed facts and truths, open communication, the return of new knowledge to the taxpayers via publishing, and force-multiplying mechanisms like scholarships without borders.

As we begin (hopefully) to address with action our indisputable economic challenges of federal and state government finances, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Even the most conservative economist would recommend keeping and maintaining our best assets as a nation as we cut the fat and waste. You see, America and innovation both rely on freedom. Robust innovation in a structured environment that is rooted in academic freedom will always be our best national economic fuel.

Publicly seeded industrial research, and our land-grant universities where it is pursued, are original American ideas. This neo-anti-intellectual movement that demands instant political gratification for every public dollar invested in research is neither economically healthy nor historically wise. We have cut funding and neglected our great public research universities, treating them like noncritical assets on the chopping block along with waste and fat. “Let the market and private sponsors fund it” is the rationalization. Private sponsor-funded research is critical, but is best done at one of our great public research universities.

I’m reminded of the age-old fable of God and the devil walking down the street. God sees a beautiful stone, colorful and glorious. He picks it up and says, “Ah, truth.” The devil says, “Give it to me, I’ll organize it.” Do you think the venerable Purdue researcher Dr. Bill Daniel would have had the freedom to go outside the box and develop the crazy notion of the Prescription Athletic Turf (PAT) system in the ’70s, launching a sand-based revolution in sports turf management, in a restricted, market-based research facility?

American academic research that is useful to common industry, and developed in a creative and energetic environment, free from the industrial profit motive and wispy winds of political change, will be crucial in our national path forward. So don’t be threatened by what you don’t understand, be American and research it. Tax-supported research by design will always be somewhat controversial and unsettling.

Researchers, like personal trainers for the human knowledge base, break down and even slightly damage our mental muscles, allowing them to grow back stronger. It’s not always easy, fast, cheap and fun, but like most American ideals, it works.