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Report Calls on Feds, States To Recognize Central Role of Research Universities

June 13, 2012

A new report from the National Academies' National Research Council urges the U.S. federal government, state government, business and universities to act in concert to preserve the competitiveness of the nation's research universities. The report, a follow-up to 2005's Rising Above the Gathering Storm, suggests that a number of ongoing trends threaten U.S. global leadership in higher education. The most critical of these issues are declining federal funding for university research and the erosion of state support for higher education in general. By restoring university funding, easing regulatory and reporting requirements, building stronger university-business research partnerships and addressing attrition rates within graduate programs, the U.S. can restore its national research ecosystem, according to the report.

The report, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security, was commissioned by Congress in 2009 to assess the competitive position of American research universities. A committee of 21 luminaries, including industry CEOs, university presidents, a former U.S. Senator and a Nobel laureate, prepared the report as a strategic plan for university research policy and investment over the next five to ten years. The committee provides ten specific recommendations for action by the White House, federal agencies, state governments, universities and the private sector to bolster the country's research infrastructure.

Though the authors raise a number of concerns about the future of U.S. research, they also depict the web of research institutions around the country as an unprecedented mechanism for the generation and spread of knowledge. The partnership between the U.S. federal government and universities, dating to the passage of the Morrill Act, has led to the creation of a large, diverse ecosystem of public and private research universities in which each plays critical local, regional and national roles. About 35 to 40 of the world's top research universities are in the U.S. and American institutions continue to attract the brightest students and scholars from around the world.

Several trends, however, have endangered that position in recent years. Federal funding for university research has declined in nominal terms and as a percentage of GDP. That funding also has been unstable, making the federal government less reliable source of support. At the same time, state funding for higher education has declined, leading to tuition increases and more limited research funding. Throughout the twentieth century, American innovation was supported by large corporate research laboratories. These now have largely disappeared, with that role being filled by smaller companies that develop promising technologies and are then acquired by larger firms. The report points out that this approach seldom leads to the kind of transformational research done in the old corporate labs. Research universities could fill this role, but university/business collaborations largely have remained more limited.

The report provides ten action items to address these crises. Recommendations include:

  • Adopting stable and effective policies, practices and funding for university R&D and graduate education;
  • Providing greater autonomy for public research universities, so that they may leverage regional assets;
  • Strengthen business' role in university research and graduate education;
  • Increase university cost-effectiveness and productivity;
  • Create a Strategic Investment Program to fund critical research and education initiatives;
  • Eliminate regulations that impede research productivity or increase costs;
  • Improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students and ensure that they have an opportunity to complete their program;
  • Support efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM programs and in university research; and,
  • Ensure that the U.S. is able to benefit from the participation of international students and scholars.

Read Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security...

higher ed, policy recommendations