Research Universities and the Future of America

NAS Report on How to Maintain America's World-Class Research Universities

bridges vol. 34, July 2012 / Feature Articles

Cover: Research Universities and the Future of America America is driven by innovation – advances in ideas, products, and processes that create new industries and jobs, contribute to the country's health and security, and support a high standard of living. In the past half century, innovation itself has been increasingly driven by educated people and the knowledge they produce. The primary US source of new knowledge and of graduates with advanced skills continues to be its excellent research universities.

By most measures, US research universities still maintain that status, with 35 to 40 consistently ranking among the top 50 universities globally. However, US research universities are facing critical challenges – magnified by the financial crisis – that threaten to erode the quality of research and education these institutions can provide. Such challenges range from unstable revenue streams and antiquated policies and practices to increasing competition from universities abroad. Thus, it appears essential to reaffirm and revitalize the unique partnership that has long existed among research universities, the federal government, the states, and philanthropy, and to strengthen its links with business and industry.

Recognizing that US research universities are at risk, the US Congress asked the National Academies to assess the competitive position of America's research universities, both public and private, and to respond to the following question:

What are the top 10 actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others can take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?

In response, the National Research Council convened a committee of individuals who are leaders in academia, industry, government, and national laboratories. The committee's report, Research Universities and the Future of America, explains its findings and the 10 actions it recommends.

This article summarizes the findings and recommendations of that report, as they were outlined in the report's executive summary.


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A partnership for innovation

As the United States pursues economic growth and other national goals, its research universities have emerged as a major national asset – perhaps even its most potent one. This did not happen by accident; rather, it is the result of forward-looking and deliberate federal and state policies. These began with the Morrill Act of 1862, which established a partnership between the federal government and the states to build universities that would address the challenges of creating a modern agricultural and industrial economy for the 20th century.

The government-university partnership was expanded in the 1950s and 1960s to contribute to national security, public health, and economic growth. Through this expanded partnership, basic research – the source of new ideas for the long term – would be increasingly funded by the federal government and largely concentrated in the nation's research universities.

This partnership, which, over time, grew to include industry and philanthropy, has led to significant benefits for America's economy and quality of life. Lasers, radar, synthetic insulin, blood thinners, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computers, and rocket fuel are among the countless innovations in which university research has played an essential role. And talented graduates of these institutions have created and populated many new businesses that have employed millions of Americans.

New and critical challenges

US research universities are still widely recognized as the best in the world, admired for their education and research. Yet research universities now confront critical pressures, including unstable revenue streams, demographic shifts in the US population, changes in the organization and scale of research, and shifting relationships between research universities, government, and industry. Research universities also face growing competition from their counterparts abroad. While US institutions have long attracted outstanding students and scholars from around the world, who have contributed substantially to the US research and innovative capacity, other countries are rapidly strengthening their institutions to compete for the best international students as well as for faculty, resources, and reputation.

With these developments in mind, the NAS committee identified a set of specific challenges and opportunities that must be addressed by a reasoned set of policies in order to produce the greatest return to the society, security, and economy of the US:

  • Federal funding for university research has been unstable and, in real terms, declining at a time when other countries have increased funding for research and development (R&D).
  • State funding for higher education, already eroding in real terms for more than two decades, has been cut further during the recent recession.
  • Business and industry have largely dismantled the large corporate research laboratories that drove American industrial leadership in the 20th century (e.g., Bell Labs), but have not yet fully partnered with research universities to fill the gap at a time when the new knowledge and ideas emerging from university research are needed by society more than ever.
  • Research universities must improve management, productivity, and cost efficiency in both administration and academics.
  • Young faculty have insufficient opportunities to launch academic careers and research programs.
  • There has been an underinvestment in campus infrastructure, particularly in cyberinfrastructure that could lead to long-term increases in productivity, cost-effectiveness, and innovation in research, education, and administration.
  • The cost of sponsored research is not fully covered by those who procure it, which means that universities have to cross-subsidize sponsored research from other sources.
  • A burdensome accumulation of federal and state regulatory and reporting requirements increases costs and sometimes challenges academic freedom and integrity.
  • Doctoral and postdoctoral preparation could be enhanced by shortening time to degree, raising completion rates, and enhancing programs' effectiveness in providing training for highly productive careers.
  • Demographic change in the US population necessitates strategies for increasing the success of female and underrepresented minority students.
  • Institutions abroad are increasingly competing for international students, researchers, and scholars.

Based on these identified issues, the NAS committee has developed several principles and recommendations to help federal and state policy makers, universities, and businesses overcome these hurdles and capitalize on these opportunities. They stress that strong leadership – and partnership – will be essential in order for US research universities and the country to thrive.

Following a five-principles approach

According to the NAS committee, reaffirming and strengthening the unique partnership that has long existed among US research universities, the federal government, the states, and business will require:

  1. A balanced set of commitments by each of the partners – the federal government, state governments, research universities, and business and industry – to provide leadership for the nation in a knowledge-intensive world and to develop and implement enlightened policies, efficient operating practices, and necessary investments
  2. The use of requirements for matching funds among these commitments, which provide strong incentives for participation at comparable levels by each partner
  3. Sufficient flexibility to accommodate differences among research universities and the diversity of their stakeholders
  4. A commitment to a decade-long effort that seeks both to address challenges and to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge
  5. A recognition of the importance of supporting the comprehensive nature of the research university, spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines, including the physical, life, social, and behavioral sciences; engineering; the arts and humanities; and the professions, all of which enable universities to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge- and innovation-driven global economy.

Following these principles, the report identified three broader goals and designed 10 strategic actions to accomplish those goals.

Goal 1: Revitalizing the partnership. The first four actions would strengthen the partnership among universities, federal and state governments, philanthropy, and the business community in order to revitalize university research and speed its translation into innovative products and services.

Goal 2: Strengthening institutions. The next three actions would streamline and improve the productivity of research operations within universities.

Goal 3: Building talent. The final three actions would ensure that America's pipeline of future talent in science, engineering, and other research areas remains creative and vital, leveraging the abilities of all of its citizens and attracting the best students and scholars from around the world.

The ten strategic actions

The first recommendation issued by the report concerns federal action. To renew the critical partnership between the federal government and universities, Congress and the administration should fully fund the America COMPETES Act. This would double the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, US Department of Energy, and National Institutes of Standards and Technology. In addition, Congress should maintain at least current levels of funding for basic research across other federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. Such support would achieve a balanced research portfolio and ensure that universities would be able to educate "the scientists, engineers, physicians, teachers, scholars, and other knowledge professionals essential for the nation's security, health, and prosperity," states the report.

The report's 10 recommendations at a glance:

1. Federal Action: policies, practices and funding

2. State Action: providing greater autonomy and restoring state appropriations

3. Strengthening Partnerships with Businesses: accelerating time to innovation

4. Improving University Productivity: increasing university cost-effectiveness

5. A Strategic Investment Program: funding initiatives at universities in key national priorities

6. Full Federal Funding of Research: for research projects procured by the government

7. Reducing Regulatory Burdens

8. Reforming Graduate Education

9. STEM Pathways and Diversity: tapping into the full potential, including women and minorities

10. International Students and Scholars: ensuring the continued participation of international in US academia.

Another recommendation focuses on the role of states. The report notes that states must maintain high-quality regional research institutions in order to compete in an increasingly knowledge- and innovation-driven economy. As budgets recover from the recession, state governments should strive to restore and maintain per-student funding for higher education to levels equal to those in the period 1987-2002, as adjusted for inflation. Federal programs aimed at stimulating innovation and work-force development at the state level should be accompanied by strong incentives to sustain state support for public universities.

The report also calls on the nation's research universities to play their part by significantly increasing cost-effectiveness and productivity, both in operations and academic programs. In addition, reducing federal and state regulatory burdens on universities will help reduce their costs. These savings can be used to constrain tuition increases or to increase financial aid. The federal government should also invest in infrastructure – particularly cyberinfrastructure – that has the potential for improving productivity in administration, research, and academic programs.

Universities should make doctoral programs more effective by reducing attrition and the time it takes to obtain degrees. Doctoral programs should also be aligned with the careers inside and outside of academia. In a time of constrained budgets and delayed faculty retirements, the government should support a faculty chairs program to open opportunities for early- and mid-career faculty.

Businesses, which have long relied on research universities for talent and technology, should also play a bigger part in ensuring their health, according to the report. Federal and state policies should encourage collaboration between US national laboratories, businesses, and universities in order to enable large-scale, sustained research projects.

For detailed information on the report and its recommendations, please visit the NAS project page.


About the Research Universities and the Future of America report: The study was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Energy. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.