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TBED Book Review: Research Universities and the Public Good

October 25, 2018
By: Jason Rittenberg

Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS) at the University of Michigan and a researcher with work covered previously by SSTI, has written a book explaining the benefits of university R&D. Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press) provides an accessible argument for the peculiar benefits of universities’ approach to R&D.

Owen-Smith’s explanation for why top research universities are strong at advancing the public good boils down to three structural elements. Universities are:

  • Network sources — producing unique opportunities for collaboration and discovery;
  • Community anchors — creating a lasting and location-bound presence to stabilize development; and,
  • Connecting hubs — providing a point of common pass-through for a wide variety of actors.

Despite leading a data-focused institute, Owen-Smith’s book does not attempt to provide an overwhelming crush of data and only references key results from past studies to illustrate his argument. For example, as part of his explanation for how universities’ physical structure can lead to collaboration, he writes, “for every additional 100 feet of overlap in the walking paths of two scientists who have not collaborated before, there is about a 17 percent increase in the chance they will start a new project together (p. 81).” The writing’s emphasis on examples and history makes the book a quick and easy read, while providing an opportunity to be interesting and, hopefully, persuasive to audiences without an academic or science policy background.

For an audience that is already deeply invested in innovation and science policy, the clear distinctions between what Owen-Smith is and is not arguing may stand out clearly, and sometimes leaves such a reader wanting.

The most significant parameter is that, as the title suggests, Research Universities and the Public Good is very specifically focused on the benefits of top-tier research-focused institutions. The cut-off point for many of the examples and data points are institutions with more than $100 million in R&D, which includes 141 universities, or the top 2.8 percent by this ranking.

Universities with a limited emphasis on research may find points of disagreement with Owen-Smith. For example, the book argues that top-tier research universities provide excellent educations, largely due to the unique learning opportunities available to students that partner with research faculty. There is no consideration for any possible offset in educational quality due to the (increasingly) numerous classes taught by part-time, non-research staff, nor a discussion of whether students that will not avail themselves of the opportunity to engage in extra-curricular research would be better off in another setting altogether.

Even lower-volume research institutions that could find many of Owen-Smith’s arguments broadly relevant to their work will likely not appreciate all implications of his arguments. The book makes the case for further concentrating research dollars (particularly federal dollars) at these most prolific institutions. While there is ample support within the book for the relationship between concentration and innovation potential, there is little consideration for public benefits that could accrue from different approaches to R&D. For example, SSTI has recently covered research into initiatives like EPSCoR, which target better geographic distribution of R&D and, more significantly, a finding that federal R&D boosts local economic development. Institutions and states that already receive comparatively small shares of R&D funding are likely to bristle at the suggestion that the American people would be better off if any further funds are even more concentrated.

A second parameter to the argument in Research Universities and the Public Good is a specific focus on the benefits of providing more funding to top-tier universities for research and operations as they have traditionally worked. To this end, the book articulates well-supported rationales for the traditional system’s benefits and successes.

However, this construction does not leave space for ways universities might need or be able to improve their operations and outcomes. The U.S. system has undeniably worked well, but are other models viable? China has seen an explosion of research citations and startup investment in recent years, and this growth may contain lessons for U.S. innovation policy — or not, but the discussion seems worthwhile.

The book’s argument on the merits of traditional R&D funding for top-tier universities also undervalues the significance of the funding shift at many universities away from government reliance and toward student-funded tuition. Owen-Smith does point to this change and mentions state efforts to compel greater deference by universities to employers (e.g., Wisconsin). However, the book quickly dismisses market-driven interests in favor of traditional R&D objectives, largely by pointing to ways in which R&D ultimately achieves public good. While Owen-Smith’s clear advocacy for a larger share of government funding may explain his limited expression of concern with the impacts of tuition-focused funding, there are implications to universities’ acceptance of this new funding reality that, perhaps, should not be so easily set aside.

The public mission of university R&D has historically been in alignment with the largely public funding of universities. Replacing that public funding with private fees while maintaining the public mission asks students to absorb the cost of the public benefits with no additional private benefit. In short, students are being asked to engage in a substantial act of philanthropy — or to pay a substantial (and regressive) tax — alongside a tuition fee. While universities have been left in the lurch by declining state and federal funding, the idea that accessing a new source of funding could, or even should, have no consequences is unrealistic. If students prefer to see additional private benefits accompany their additional private payments to universities, then universities should be ready to consider how to deliver results to their new patrons — and should not be surprised at consequences if they do not.

To be fair to Owen-Smith, Research Universities and the Public Good is strictly focused on the connection between universities and the best outcomes for the American public as a whole. There are fair concerns about whether a shift among top research universities toward focusing on employment outcomes for undergraduates would result in less total benefits to the American public. The issue is simply another example of the tension that readers deep into the weeds of university and R&D policy may feel when reading the book.

Ultimately, a single book cannot fairly be asked to be all things to all people, and the challenge of writing a simultaneous case in favor of government funding for academic R&D and seriously considering universities’ existing and imminent threats may be particularly out of reach. In Research Universities and the Public Good, Owen-Smith makes an excellent argument for the substantial, if unpredictable, value of the benefits of top-tier research universities and in so doing, makes a case for greater government funding for university R&D that can be appreciated by a wide variety of audiences.

higher ed