Lawmakers May Seek More Federal Money for Public Universities

June 23, 2009

Washington — Four years after a federal study panel gave Congress a wish list for assisting American research universities, a group of leading lawmakers has decided it may not have gone far enough.

The lawmakers, including the chairmen of the House and Senate science panels, are asking the National Academies to compile the “top 10 actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take” to maintain the quality of American research universities and ensure their role in American economic growth.

“We are concerned that they are at risk,” the four lawmakers said, citing both the steadily improving quality of foreign universities and the declining level of state support for public universities in the United States.

The lawmakers included Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, chairman of the House science committee, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that handles science appropriations. The others were Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee and a former U.S. education secretary, and Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the House science committee.

They described their request as a bid for a follow-up to the “Gathering Storm” report of 2005, in which a National Academies committee assembled a list of the 20 most important improvements that Congress could make in federal support for research and education.

The recommendations included doubling federal spending on the physical sciences over seven years. Congress has taken steps in that direction, approving a $21.5-billion jump in federal research-and-development spending in an economic-stimulus measure enacted this year.

And President Obama last month proposed a $30.9-billion budget for the National Institutes of Health for the 2010 fiscal year, setting a baseline 4.7 percent higher than the agency’s final budget under President Bush, in 2008.

The request Monday by the lawmakers was sparked in part by a letter in February to Senator Alexander from Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, who said the government needed to address a “growing imbalance between public and private research universities.”

“Such an initiative should target a limited number of institutions in each state, the flagship campuses,” Mr. Berdahl said. “To succeed, it would need to provide additional federal resources, supplementing and leveraging state support rather than supplanting it.” —Paul Basken