Research Universities, Wary of Politics, Open New Campaign for Federal Money

September 22, 2010

Leaders of the nation's research universities embarked on a yearlong campaign for greater federal financial support on Wednesday with a recognition that their effort could easily fall victim to the hostile political environment in Washington.

One day after several university presidents visited the White House to hear Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. extol their institutions' scientific accomplishments, a group of them gathered in the more austere setting of a downtown conference room to plot a strategy for ensuring their future health.

The setting was the inaugural meeting of the Committee on Research Universities, a panel of 22 university and corporate leaders formed by the National Research Council to make recommendations for preserving the long-term quality of university research in the United States.

Members of the panel began by asking Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, and M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, for advice on how to approach their job over the coming year, which will culminate in a report.

In response, they heard a familiar litany of problems, including declining levels of state-government support, growing competition from overseas, difficulties in quantifying the long-term value of research, and the overall challenge of modernizing centuries-old academic traditions.

Mr. McPherson's group has pressed the idea that public universities must reduce their dependence on state budgets, in favor of more-reliable federal support, by emphasizing the importance of scientific research as a national asset. Mr. McPherson made clear, however, that universities, even as they push for more federal money, feel that states must maintain at least their current levels of support.

Committee members seemed to support the idea but said they would need specific data to back up the argument. They also made clear that universities would need to examine their own operations.

How to Measure Productivity

The panel's chairman, Charles O. Holliday Jr., a former chief executive of the DuPont chemical company, said he wanted ways of measuring "the productivity of research universities."

It wasn't clear he'd be getting answers. Mr. McPherson at one point mused about the value of developing hard figures on the cost of producing a graduate student. Mr. Berdahl answered, "I'm not sure we want to call attention to that."

Asked at another point about the possibility of ending tenure, Mr. Berdahl cautioned about the need to expect gradual change. "Some of us value our jobs and our lives," he said.

Mr. McPherson said his colleagues could at least take comfort from the Obama administration's full support for the notion that research universities are a critical national asset worthy of protection, as demonstrated by Mr. Biden's meeting on Tuesday. "He was very strong" on the subject, Mr. McPherson said.

The greater worry is whether anything as major as a realignment of government support for research universities, from a state-dominated structure to a federally led model, can be accomplished in the heavily partisan atmosphere of Washington, Mr. Berdahl said. "The political environment, as you well know, is relatively toxic and not very productive," he told the panel.

The study group met at the same time a federal appeals court is considering whether to outlaw federally financed embryonic-stem-cell research, and just a month after a state judge in Virginia blocked an attempt by the state's attorney general to force the University of Virginia to surrender documents related to a leading researcher of climate change.

One panel member, Enriqueta Bond, a former president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, worried aloud about whether it would be wise for the group to even tackle such "anti-science" forces in its report. "It certainly has complicated the partnership" between universities and government, Mr. Berdahl said.