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Spring 2014 Vol. 13 Number 2

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National Convocation Focuses on Strengthening U.S. Research Universities

“If our universities do not prosper, it's not likely that Americans will prosper. And I speak not just for Americans who attend those universities, but all Americans.”
-- Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.

In 2012 the National Research Council released a report that red-flagged a major crisis facing U.S. research universities, warning that these institutions, which have been so essential for the nation's prosperity and security, are in danger of serious decline. The release of the report was the starting point of an initiative to make the health of U.S. research universities a national priority. Members of the committee that wrote the report -- which included industry CEOs, university presidents, a former U.S. senator, and a Nobel laureate -- took part in a series of nine regional meetings to discuss how to implement the congressionally mandated report's 10 breakthrough actions for strengthening these vital institutions.

This effort culminated in a national convocation to examine what was learned at the regional events and identify top priorities for implementing the report's recommended actions. Despite a government shutdown, hundreds of people gathered for the October event at the National Academy of Sciences building -- and hundreds more attended virtually via video webcast.

The convocation's plenary session featured several high-level speakers who pinpointed challenges facing research universities on many levels. Jim Duderstadt, a member of the study committee and president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, noted that a major reason why U.S. research universities became world-renowned is because of the longstanding partnership between federal and state governments, businesses, and research universities. That partnership must be revived, he urged. "Federal policies no longer place a priority on university research and graduate education," Duderstadt said. "Today the states are no longer capable or perhaps willing to support their public research universities at world-class levels. Business and industry, in large part because of pressures of profit and loss from Wall Street, have largely ceded their basic research to universities, but not with the necessary level of support or engagement. And research universities themselves have failed to achieve the cost efficiency and productivity enhancement that is expected of them in an increasingly competitive world."

Congressman Rush Holt, along with other speakers, noted the success of another Academy report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which resulted in Congress passing the America COMPETES Act and increasing funding for basic research. These results came out of a sustained effort to focus the attention of Congress and other key policymakers on the issues, and that same sustained effort is needed within the research community. "The problem, in short, is that Congress is acting only in response to immediate crises. This derives from a short-term mentality and exacerbates a short-term mentality. Things need to change. The members of Congress need to think like scientists," he said.

Norman Augustine, who chaired the Gathering Storm report and is retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., pointed out that research universities are essential for American competitiveness, citing studies that found 50 percent to 85 percent of the growth in America's GDP per capita could be attributed to advancements in science and technology. In turn, those advancements stem from the creation of new knowledge, the availability of an educated population, and the maintenance of an "innovation-friendly ecosystem" -- all provided by research universities. "If our universities do not prosper, it's not likely that Americans will prosper. And I speak not just for Americans who attend those universities, but all Americans," he said.

Following the plenary session, attendees participated in several breakout sessions that looked at revitalizing the government-industry-university partnership, strengthening universities through greater productivity and stable funding, and building talent in science, engineering, and other research areas.

-- Molly Galvin

For more information, visit the Research Universities website.

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