By Keith McDowell
The 1950s heralded the outbreak of over a half-century of spectacular innovations by America’s best and brightest including the creation of an innovation ecosystem second to none – not to mention the invention of rock and roll music. By any measure, the United States became the dominant world power as a nation driven by innovation. So say the pundits and so say our nation’s leaders.
And at the core of that success was a social contract whereby the federal government funded basic research and discovery as the source of new ideas leading to those innovations, principally at state-supported and private research universities. So why is it that many in America are in denial of this basic truth? Why is it that American universities must once again defend a strategy that has been the envy of the world?
For those of you not paying attention, we as citizens have yet another tome to digest entitled Research Universities and The Future of America. Commissioned by Senators Lamar Alexander and Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Representatives Bart Gordon and Ralph Hall, the National Academies was asked to assess the competitive position of American research universities and to propose the top ten actions that our nation should undertake. This report is the result of that study. And yes, I read the whole thing including the Appendices … well, maybe not EVERY word.
Like its many predecessors, the report documents the case for American research universities as being at risk. Here are just a few of the issues.
· Significant decline in state support of public universities leading to troubling tuition increases, calls for cost containment and efficiency, attempts to squeeze more out of intellectual property and technology commercialization, privatization of public universities, and a host of other cure-all revenue concepts, but with the underlying premise that federal dollars cannot replace state dollars.
· Unstable and flattened federal funding for research.
· Deterioration of endowments.
· Global competition with competitors a mouse click away leading to “the Death of Distance.”
· Failure to produce graduates matched to both national and business interests and with the proper mix of skill sets and capabilities.
· Changing national demographics and relationships with industry as well as rapidly evolving technologies.
· Dismantling of industrial R&D laboratories.
· The required size and shortened time scale of modern research.
No one doubts that America needs a national strategy for education and research. And no one doubts that we need targeted national goals and grand challenges. The report addresses these points by first establishing five guiding principles that I paraphrase as follows:
· Balanced set of commitments by all partners and stakeholders
· Matching requirements
· Long-term effort commitment
· Support for comprehensive nature of research universities
Based on these principles, the report recommends ten action items to be undertaken by all of the stakeholders. I simplify and paraphrase these recommendations as follows:
1. Stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for university performed R&D and graduate education.
2. Autonomy to respond with agility coupled with a restoration of state appropriations.
3. Partnering for innovation through stakeholder connections, tax incentives, technology commercialization, and targeted strategic workforce degree programs.
4. Cost effective and lean university management through increased productivity – a variant of the “more for less” approach – using agreed upon outcome measures.
5. “Strategic Investment Program” focused on endowed chairs – particularly for young faculty – as well as research infrastructure and capacity building cognizant of national and business interests.
6. Full cost recovery for research.
7. Optimal regulatory environment including harmonization across agencies and the use of best practices versus a compliance-driven approach.
8. America’s best and brightest attracted to viable career and national interest focused graduate programs.
9. Inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities.
10. Participation of international students and scholars.
As always, the devil is in the details, but I applaud the effort put forth by the National Academies in producing this report, even though I question some of its points. It is a worthy defense of American research universities and their role in the social contract that has produced our great nation. The recommendations should be immediately acted upon by all of the stakeholders and, most especially, by Congress. And in the past, they would have been, but no more. Instead, this report is already gathering dust on the shelves of history, quickly forgotten and unlikely to have any impact whatsoever.