Experts examine challenges facing research universities

July 23, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

In an hours-long virtual workshop that could have covered days, the presidents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and leaders from government, academia, and publishing explored key questions the research enterprise must address to build a more effective and resilient 21st century research university. Facing challenges that may have long been present but have been exacerbated and accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, the leaders began exploring questions that could help research universities rebound to a better place than the pre-pandemic status quo.

Facing issues including strained budgets, intellectual property challenges, decreases in state funding, restrictions on international students, racial inequality, laboratory challenges and more, research universities were already grappling with myriad challenges. Speakers in the workshop, from Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, to Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and France A. Córdova, the 14th director of the National Science Foundation, the leaders presented a sometimes grim picture of the current situation.

However, amid what Coleman referred to as frightening numbers when considering the financial losses due to COVID-19, there was also a recognized opportunity to return from the pandemic upheaval in a stronger position. Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted that this may be the time for new collaboration models and that recovery could be a time to shore up the strength of the nation’s research universities.

In urging Congress to recognize universities in their next relief package, Coleman noted that “failure to do so will have severe repercussions not only to education and research, but also for economic security far into the future.”

Ideas were proposed during the afternoon workshop in consideration of many new avenues that could be pursued to strengthen universities. For instance, when considering realigning the relationship between research and education, Frances Ligler, the Lampe Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering, North Carolina State University/University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, posited that universities need to make it easier for undergraduates to work in labs and welcome students that have been in the workforce before pursuing higher education.

There was also discussion surrounding educating science reporters and making politicians more science literate, restructuring laboratories, reimagining what a racially diverse science workforce will look like, international research collaborations, science ethics, and ensuring that the basic research enterprise is aligned with national needs.

Whether the university landscape will be able to survive and thrive from what is shaping up to be monumental transformation is yet to be seen. As Leshner suggested in concluding the event, organizations now need to turn their attention from what needs to be done to the questions surrounding how to get it done. As Leshner said, it is a transformation point.

(A recording of the workshop is in production and will be available on the National Academies website.)


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