In a series of upcoming Q&A sessions, academics and other observers will review the fiscal and competitive challenges facing U.S. research institutions and what might solve them.
By Ken Stier
The same week that President Obama called for the United States to regain its lead as the world’s best-educated nation, the University of California system turned away 30,000 students.
This was roughly two years ago, but since then the fiscal picture has only darkened — for the federal government as well on the state level. The Golden State labors under a particularly gargantuan deficit — and the regents of the University of California responded by raising tuition a second time this year — but its predicament is emblematic of a central challenge for higher education across the United States. Just as alarming is the precipitous, and concomitant, decline in research taking place at the nation’s major universities, public and private.
Stimulus money from the American Recovery Act has delayed the wrenching changes ahead, but the telltale signs are clear. State support per student is lower than it has been for 25 years, and private college endowments are not expected to recover to pre-crash levels for another 10-15 years, according to informed reckonings. Similar reckonings surround research at public institutions.
This comes as other nations rev up their commitment to higher education and research institutions.
China now spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development and has, in just the last five years, more than doubled the number of higher education institutions; the student population has surged from 1 million to 5 million during the same period. China is now the world’s largest generator of scientific papers (quality is another matter, but these increasingly involve international collaboration).
Last November, China published its “National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020)” that lays out ambitious plans to boost patent filings from 300,000 in 2009 to more than 2 million by 2015. China’s patent surge, evident for several years, is stoked by government cash bonuses and better housing for individual filers and tax breaks for prolific patent-producing companies.
In the Middle East, credible efforts to stand up new world-class institutions include the $10 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which demonstrated its earnestness by recruiting a highly regarded Harvard-trained academic Choon Fong Shih — who had already worked wonders at the National University of Singapore — as founding president. The university, Saudi Arabia’s first mixed-sex university (even exempt from religious police patrols), uses English as the official language of instruction for programs focused exclusively on graduate education and research in life sciences, engineering, computer science and physical sciences.
Such new efforts will divert part of the geyser of international graduate students who have been a secret source of strength for American university research for years.
A National Academies of Sciences-assembled panel of experts, headed by former DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, has been asked: “What are the top 10 actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities and others could 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?” The panel’s progress to date can be seen here; it is expected to issue a report soon.
It’s billed as an equally vital successor to the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” study, a 2006 report that jolted Congress to pass the America COMPETES Act in 2007. That legislation aimed to revitalize American competitiveness through R&D-generated innovation, especially in “high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need.” (It was reauthorized in May 2010.) Read more…