Public Research Universities Need Support, Reform

We must remind politicians of the phenomenal return on investment provided by these institutions.

Hannah McDonald working in a lab through the Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas­—Austin.
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Dr. Brad Fenwick, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an American Council on Education fellow, and Jefferson Science fellow and formerly vice president for research at Virginia Tech and vice chancellor for research at the University of Tennessee. He currently serves as senior vice president for Global Strategic Alliances for Elsevier. A copy of "The Current Health and Future Well-Being of the American Research University" study can be found here.

The newest American Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry, David Wineland, Robert Lefkowitz, and Brian Kobilka, share more in common than their hard work, relentless focus, and spectacular achievements. All are associated with American research universities—the University of Colorado at Boulder, Duke Medical Center, and Stanford School of Medicine, respectively. But in spite of their breakthroughs and supportive institutions, American research universities face an uncertain future just as our global competitiveness, more than ever, demands the advancements they sponsor.

Consider the global race in advanced technology. Dr. Wineland and his prize-winning work in quantum physics promises computer speeds and abilities we can barely imagine today. If harnessed, industrialized and put into the hands of companies and consumers, this kind of breakthrough promises untold benefits to the U.S. economy and global competitive leadership.

Today's reality is more sobering. Data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Department of Commerce shows a trend toward more U.S. patents being awarded to overseas innovators. Many factors are at play. But it is no coincidence that support for education and research in America has dropped as well.

[See the U.S. News Best Colleges.]

For U.S. public research universities, state-level support fell 20 percent from 2002 to 2010, factoring for inflation and an increase in enrollment by about 320,000 students nationally, a recent National Science Board report found. In 10 states, support fell 30 percent or more, and in Colorado and Rhode Island, the drop was nearly 50 percent. Research universities also face declining federal funding, erosion of endowments, soaring tuition costs, and increasing compliance and reporting requirements. Political and public confidence in the value of university-based research has slipped.

Research universities also face internal challenges. A recent study sponsored by Elsevier of 25 of the top American research universities found that academic research as an enterprise has developed incrementally with little consideration given by funders, regulators, and in some cases the universities, on how to maximize how they function or produce. The bottom-up assessment found a system fragmented at all levels in its approach, and lacking an accepted means to rationally assess differences in productivity and efficiency. While the competitive nature of research rewards efficiency and effectiveness at the level of the individual researcher, these same pressures do not apply as strongly at the institutional level.

[See the U.S. News Top Public Universities.]

What can be done to strengthen the future of American research universities? As a start, many could adopt internal reforms, from measures and benchmarks for efficiency and productivity, to objective evaluation of policy alternatives, organizational structure, and different administrative approaches. All in all, research universities should support—and avoid resisting—change and experimentation that would ensure healthy competitive growth and strengthen the core of the academic research enterprise.

More broadly, America desperately needs a coherent national plan and rational strategy to support university-based research if we are going to maintain our competitive edge in science, technology, economics, and the full range of disciplines that serve humanity, society, innovation, and our economy. Such a national strategy should boost funding, yes, but also promote institution-based research support systems that provide faculty more time to expand research, reduce the frustration that quells initiative, and invest in the infrastructure that will support competitive opportunities.