Commentary

Reassessing the Value of Research Universities

July 13, 2009

Several U.S. senators and members of Congress—Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland; Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee; Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat from Tennessee; and Rep. Ralph Hall, a Republican from Texas—are asking the National Academies to carry out a study of the status of American research universities. I am grateful and, with them, hope that such a project will have an impact similar to that of the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." That report, issued in 2007, inspired bipartisan support among national policy makers for revitalizing the nation's investment in science and math education as well as in basic research in the physical sciences.

I suggested such a study to Sen. Alexander earlier this year, on the basis of several propositions that call for candid discussion.

First, basic research is essential to the nation's ability to maintain "the productivity of well-trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technological innovations," as stated in the 2007 report. The future of our economy depends on basic research.

Second, research universities, along with national laboratories, conduct the bulk of basic research in the nation today. With the decline or disappearance of the major industrial laboratories, such as Bell Labs, the responsibility for conducting basic research has devolved largely to research universities.

Third, we can no longer take for granted the dominant position of American universities in the world. Other nations—Japan, Australia, China, South Korea, India, and members of the European Union, among others—are investing strategically in the research capacity of their universities because they understand the importance of the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Fourth, everyone familiar with higher education in the United States is aware of the relative decline in the core financial support of universities, both public and private. Public universities have suffered for years from declining state support; in some states, like California, the decline may reach catastrophic proportions. Now private universities are facing similar circumstances, having lost substantial portions of their endowments, which may take decades to recover. Nearly every institution has been forced to cancel or remake ambitious plans, impose layoffs and/or pay cuts and freezes, and make tough choices with respect to their programs. Moreover, the price of attending flagship public universities and major private universities has reached levels that may be difficult to sustain or to reconcile with our historic commitment to broad student access regardless of income.

Fifth, research-intensive universities require more financial support than non-research-intensive institutions do. The extraordinary expense of research equipment, laboratories, and support for graduate students adds substantially to the underlying costs of sustaining a research enterprise—as do the greater numbers of faculty members required to conduct research, and compliance with steadily accumulating federal regulations. Such costs are not by any means all covered by federal research grants or the overhead reimbursement they generate. Although federal research support is substantial and crucial, it leaves a widening burden of unmet costs that must be borne by the institutions, their states, and their donors.

In short, the American people have reason to be deeply concerned about the future of our public and private research universities. That is why we need an independent assessment of the institutions' status and their future.

Among the many questions that analysis should consider are:

What is the relative global position of American research universities, and how has it changed over time?

What strategic plans are other nations developing to build research capacity in their universities?

Has the balance between public and private universities shifted substantially, and has the erosion of base budgets compromised the research capacity of universities? There has been a misunderstanding of my position in this regard: that I think the study should examine only public research universities. That is not so. I believe strongly in the productive synergy that comes from the presence of both public and private universities in America. The study needs to focus on the difficult challenges that both public and private universities face. At the same time, it needs to consider their relative circumstances.

How can we best measure the essential costs of maintaining a research-intensive university? How do they differ from those of other universities?

What have been the patterns of support for university research by industry? Has private-sector support influenced the direction of that research?

How can we sustain a healthy competition among universities that leads to improvement of all while avoiding excessive escalation in research costs?

Finally, how many research universities does the nation require? What should the federal and state governments' responsibilities be in supporting them? Here, too, there has been a misunderstanding of my views. I do not favor reducing or increasing the number of research universities in the country. I do not know how many we should have. But it is a serious question, worthy of examination. Whatever the answer, the nation needs to support its research universities in a manner adequate to their important tasks.

For those concerned about the future of the American economy and its capacity for innovation and growth, as well as about the future of its universities, those questions should be the object of serious analysis. We need a thoughtful, systematic assessment of America's research universities and what the country should do to ensure their ability to meet national needs in an increasingly competitive global environment.

I hope that the proposed study by the National Academies will provide such an assessment, along with recommendations for ensuring the competitiveness of American research universities.

Robert M. Berdahl is president of the Association of American Universities.