The Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, co-sponsors of the recent Time Summit on Higher Education, have published a section in the current issue of Time magazine that considers the future of U.S. research universities. I was invited, with University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Emeritus Robert Birgeneau, to contribute an essay for the section. Currently the text is only available in the print version of the magazine, but I can share my section of it here.
(From Time magazine, October 7, 2013)
Research Universities Power U.S. Innovation and Prosperity
We need to invest in these institutions to fuel future progress.
If you use a GPS device, a mouse, or a microwave oven, take antibiotics, have an eye implant, or are reading this on a tablet, you can thank America’s research universities.
These institutions, which have become a national network for innovation, are the envy of the world. They are responsible for many of the products, services, and industries that have changed the way we live and yet often are taken for granted.
The impact of our universities also is evident in how we address national priorities from security and defense to public health and economic prosperity at home and competiveness abroad.
Research universities—with their multifaceted mission of research, teaching, and service—are the key to educational access for millions and also underlie the economic and social growth that has seen our nation climb from a colony in rebellion to a global leader.
The future of this engine for innovation is uncertain—as the nation’s long commitment to investment in scientific research and development has begun to seriously erode under the pressure to provide short-term budgetary relief.
The concept of the research university in America emerged in the 19th century, but it was the Morrill Act of 1862 that established the nation’s land-grant colleges and the first—uniquely American—public research universities. The landmark legislation also created new, high expectations for public access and charged public universities with actively putting knowledge into practice. Together with private universities, public research universities today generate the vast majority of the nation’s study of the pure basic science vital to our knowledge base and indispensable to technological breakthroughs.
Big Return on Investment
The main source of investment in this endeavor is the federal government. In 2009, academic institutions accounted for more than half of the nation’s basic research. And of the $32.6 billion in academic research and development funding from the government that year, about 60 percent was invested in public research universities.
For example, a 2009 study of the University of Illinois and its medical enterprise showed a $13.1 billion impact on our state economy, including the creation of more than 150,000 jobs. Innovative research at the University of Illinois alone has led to 34 start-up companies and nearly 300 new patents over the last five years. The numbers are compelling, but they don’t tell the full story of how university-based research touches lives, producing everything from bar-code scanners to tissue transplants, computer-assisted design, and, from the University of Illinois, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
Another crucial benefit is the fact that research universities take risks where others fear to tread. When industries have been unwilling to invest in the early stages of research, universities step in. And when their gambles are rewarded, the outcomes are added to the public domain where industries and corporations and private individuals build on them. Lasers, MRIs, barcode scanners, even the Internet, are all discoveries that have been used in ways that would astound those who discovered them.
Declines in Funding
Yet funding for our public universities, which educate 70 percent of all undergraduates, has declined to the point where the cost of a college education rests increasingly on the backs of our students.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates reductions in federal spending of about $1 trillion over the next nine years. This is a short-term budget fix with a devastating cost to the long-term productivity of our economy and the vitality of our society. The result in 2013 alone: a $12.5-billion reduction in federally financed research and, according to one estimate, the loss to the economy of an estimated 200,000 jobs.
America’s global standing is enviable, but in danger of eroding. We can’t afford to curb key research efforts and undermine university-powered economic activity. It is ironic and alarming that other nations are fast emulating the federal-government/research-university partnership that has made the U.S. the world’s technological and scientific giant even as the danger of that model’s systematic dismantling here at home becomes increasingly apparent.
Our strategic federal investment in our universities has provided immense dividends to the nation and to the world for generations now. It is a commitment we cannot abandon.