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STAYING NUMBER ONE  - from solar homes to eco-cars, Contests spark student engagement. - By Thomas K. Grose. Clockwise from top left: University of Maryland students with their human-powered helicopter; and working on a Solar Decathlon entry; Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo students race a concrete canoe to first place.

How can U.S. research universities remain the world’s best?

As the nation struggles to recover from the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent recession, at least one sector — dubbed “America’s best industry” by journalist Fareed Zakaria — retains world dominance. It is higher education, especially research-based graduate education, which has undergirded the innovation crucial to America’s prosperity.

Even before the financial crash and recession, however, knowledgeable observers worried that American pre-eminence faced serious challenges, especially from Asian contenders such as China, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which are working aggressively to build world-class universities of their own. Multiple forces appear to threaten America’s great research institutions, and the economic crisis, which caused sharp drops in endowment and state support, only exacerbated them.

In April 2009, these concerns were crystallized in an address by Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee who served as secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. Speaking to the Association of American Universities, which represents the top-tier research universities in the United States and Canada, he compared today’s academic scene to America’s loss of its once unchallenged dominance of the automobile industry. “Nothing is more vulnerable than entrenched success,” Alexander said, quoting George Romney, president of American Motors, America’s no. 4 automaker in Detroit’s glory days. The so-called Big Three — General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – “didn’t just make the best cars in the world, they made almost all the best cars,” Alexander went on. But they failed to keep pace as Japan met customer demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. The rest is the sad story of the decline of America’s auto industry.

U.S. research universities now occupy a similar position of undisputed pre-eminence, Alexander continued. “The United States does not just have the best universities in the world — it has almost all the best universities” — 35 out of the top 50, eight out of the top 10, according to rankings by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, he told the AAU, many of whose 61 members are on that list. “In the midst of our pride, I suggest we remember the warning of George Romney.”

To keep universities from meeting the auto giants’ fate, Alexander proposed that the National Academies “assemble a distinguished group of Americans to assess the competitive position of the American research university, both public and private” and recommend the “top 10 actions” that would “assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence needed to compete and prosper … in the global community of the 21st century.” He met with heads of the academies and made his request official in a letter cosigned by Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee that allocates federal research funding; Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, since retired, who chaired the House Science and Technology Committee; and Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, top Republican on the House panel.

Two and a half years later, the Academies’ report is nearing completion and may be released in February. Among people who work at the nexus of academe and public policy, it is anticipated as a groundbreaking document on a par with the 2005 Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which Alexander also helped initiate. The earlier study, led by engineer and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, warned that America’s competitive advantage in science and technology had begun to erode, undermining U.S. suppremacy in innovation. It called for a coordinated federal effort to strengthen basic research, vastly improve K-12 science and math, and develop and keep top students, scientists and engineers. Congress responded with the landmark America COMPETES Act of 2007, setting a course for steady increases in research funding.

The working title of the new study, “Riding on Thin Ice,” suggests it will sound an alarm as urgent as that in “Gathering Storm.” It is led by Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman of the Bank of America and former chairman and CEO of DuPont, who served on the previous panel. Its staff director is Peter Henderson, another “Gathering Storm” veteran.

Recommendations remain closely guarded. But the delay in finishing the study – it was expected last summer – hints at the tough problems the panel has had to tackle. Chief among them is money. World-class research institutions require “huge financial commitments,” a recent World Bank report noted.

The pummeling that elite university endowments took early in the U.S. financial crisis still left them better off than many state institutions whacked by budget cuts. Though they raised tuition at a faster pace than private schools, state universities haven’t recouped the lost state money. A congressional ban on earmarks means they can’t count on their Washington representatives to secure federal research dollars. At the same time, administrators complain that federal grants are insufficient to cover their overhead.


A Question of Numbers

Few remedies avoid controversy. Holliday’s remarks to PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in July 2011 indicate his committee is paying considerable attention to the intersection of academe and industry and new types of partnership. So-called innovation ecosystems connecting business and university researchers are flourishing around the country, with engineering schools often playing a key role. But any emphasis on university ties to industry is bound to raise questions about the nation’s commitment to long-term basic research, which, while not quick to return profits, has yielded transformative discoveries. Holliday, an industrial engineer, also mentioned looking at “the efficiency of the universities themselves.” Such words, coming from a corporate chieftain, could stir fears of downsizing, layoffs, or loss of academic autonomy.

More contentious is a question raised by former AAU President Robert Berdahl, who was influential in launching the new study: How many research universities does the nation require? As the World Bank notes, only a small fraction of the 5,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States rank among the world’s best schools. Yet federal policy, enshrined in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is to spread research money widely. Through EPSCoR, the National Science Foundation and five other research agencies stimulate research and improve laboratories in states that in the past have been less successful in securing federal grants.

International collaboration offers a relatively low-cost way for American researchers to tap the best minds overseas, thereby boosting the overall research enterprise. The number of internationally coauthored articles more than doubled over the past two decades, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But shared knowledge, by definition, is at odds with boosting competitiveness, and Congress can be picky about which countries deserve U.S. collaboration.

New Frontiers

Holliday recounted two historic events that shaped research universities, telling PCAST his committee had vigorously debated whether to recommend a “third big thing.” The first was passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal land to finance such powerhouses as the University of California, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rutgers University. The second was World War II, which mobilized university and industry scientists to develop winning technologies. Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to maintain the research momentum in peacetime led to the seminal 1945 report, “Science, The Endless Frontier,” by presidential adviser (and engineer) Vannevar Bush, and the expansion of “the grand federal-government-university partnership” from six universities to over 100, Holliday said.

The 23-member study committee represents a wide range of institutions, backgrounds, and interests and includes experts in physical, biomedical, social, and life sciences; engineering; the humanities; information technology and finance. Seven members are corporate or nonprofit CEOs, eight are presidents of universities or university systems. Former officials include a U.S. senator, an under secretary of energy, and a national laboratory director. Eight panelists are members of one of the National Academies, one won the National Medal of Science, another the National Medal of Technology, and a third the Nobel Prize.

The panel’s approach has been as broad as its membership, judging from a presentation last March by staff director Henderson. The panel was examining, he said, the history, role, and trends affecting both public and private research universities, along with their “intellectual capacity,” governance, management, finance, and regulatory burden. Also getting attention: the organization and resources that underlie research, doctoral education, the processes of commercialization related to economic growth, and foreign competition. Finally, and most significantly, it will strive to “envision the mission and organization of these diverse institutions 10 to 20 years into the future and the steps needed to get there.”

Berdahl shared his own concerns with the Academies’ Board on Higher Education and Work Force, which is overseeing the study. They include “the lack of a national strategy” regarding research and the need to “reduce damaging fluctuations in the research appropriations… and create incentives for states to provide more consistent and sustained funding for their research universities.” Also needed, he continued, are the “means of sustaining younger faculty [and of] making certain that universities are properly reimbursed for their investment in federally funded research.” With universities performing most government-funded research, Berdahl tells Prism, “unless [they] are strong and able to attract and maintain the best minds, the country will be putting a lot of money into research that won’t be nearly as productive.”

Six years ago, “Gathering Storm” galvanized Congress into action. But lawmakers never appropriated the full amount called for in the America COMPETES Act, and bipartisan support had diminished by the time the measure came to be reauthorized. This year’s university study may find Congress less welcoming, and it will have to compete against election-year static. Will its message be heard, or will the ice give way beneath “America’s best industry”?

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a Washington-based freelance writer and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.




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