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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2

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Strong Research Universities and U.S. Prosperity

Panelists discussing Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security during an event to release the report, photo by Lorin Hancock/NAS

A New Report Identifies Critical Actions for Maintaining Highest-Quality U.S. Research Institutions

For more than a century, U.S. research universities have been the backbone of American prosperity and ingenuity. They have sown the seeds for some of the nation's greatest achievements, contributing significant benefits to our economy and quality of life. Research at these institutions has played an essential role in the development of game-changing inventions such as lasers, computers, and blood thinners. And graduates have created and propelled businesses that employ millions of Americans.

A recent report by the National Research Council warns, however, that U.S. research universities are on the brink of a crisis and in danger of serious decline. At an event to release the congressionally requested report, members of the authoring committee, which included industry CEOs, university presidents, a former U.S. senator, and a Nobel laureate, discussed 10 recommended actions that the nation should take to sustain top-quality U.S. research institutions so that they can continue to provide the knowledge, innovation, and talent for a robust economy and dynamic society.

By most measures, U.S. universities are still among the best in the world, and 35 to 40 of them consistently rank among the top 50 globally. However, these universities are facing critical challenges -- magnified by the financial crisis -- that threaten to erode the quality of research and education these institutions can provide, the report says. Federal funding for research has flattened or declined. State funding for research institutions has also dropped over the last decade -- by 20 percent to as much as 50 percent in some cases. U.S. colleges have had to raise tuition, threatening to place higher education out of reach for many.

At the same time, other countries have increased R&D funding and are pouring significant resources into their own institutions. For instance, U.S. R&D expenditures, both public and private, have hovered between 2.5 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP over the last three decades, while Japan and South Korea increased their R&D expenditures to well over 3 percent of their respective GDPs in recent years.

U.S. institutions owe much of their success to forward-looking policies that established strong partnerships between government, industry, and universities. "We had a major step forward at the time of the Civil War and at the time of World War II in the relationships between universities and government," said Charles O. Holliday, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired chairman and CEO of Dupont. "Now it's time for the third wave," which includes strong partnerships between the federal and state governments, companies, and universities. "When you put that all together, we can not only maintain our lead in the world, we can advance it." To renew that partnership, Congress and the administration should fully fund the America COMPETES Act. This would double the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

States must maintain high-quality regional research institutions in order to compete in an increasingly knowledge- and innovation-driven economy, the report adds. As budgets recover from the recession, state governments should strive to restore and maintain per-student funding for higher education to levels equal to the period of 1987-2002, as adjusted for inflation. Federal programs aimed at stimulating innovation and work-force development at the state level should be accompanied by strong incentives to sustain state support for public universities.

The report calls on research universities to play their part by significantly increasing cost-effectiveness and productivity while raising graduation rates, reducing the time needed to complete degrees, and aligning doctoral programs with careers. In addition, reducing federal and state regulatory burdens on universities will help reduce their costs. These savings can be used to constrain tuition increases or to increase financial aid. The federal government should also invest in infrastructure -- particularly cyber-infrastructure -- that has the potential for improving productivity in administration, research, and academic programs.

Businesses, which have long relied on research universities for talent and technology, should also play a bigger part in ensuring their health, the report says. "Businesses are really dependent on universities to create a pipeline of talent," said Padmasree Warrior, committee member and chief technology officer for Cisco Systems, in a video that accompanied the release of the report. "Without a pipeline of talent, businesses starve." Federal and state policies should encourage collaboration between U.S. national laboratories, businesses, and universities in order to enable large-scale, sustained research projects.

Several universities and business organizations around the country are organizing regional meetings to discuss how to implement the report's recommendations. Meetings are slated in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Tucson, Detroit, Dallas, and in California. -- Molly Galvin

Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security. Committee on Research Universities, Board on Higher Education and Workforce, Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2012; 250 pp., ISBN 0-309-25639-9; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies.

The committee was chaired by Charles O. Holliday Jr., retired chairman and CEO of Dupont. The study was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences