Reforms Can Halt Decline Of Research Universities | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: June 18, 2012

Reforms Can Halt Decline Of Research Universities

Education: NRC report lays out ways to neutralize the budget woes that threaten public universities
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: National Research Council, research universities, future

U.S. research universities are on the edge of a fiscal cliff that threatens their international dominance in science and technology, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). The outlook is especially dire for public universities, which have faced uncertain funding at the federal level and declining per-student funding at the state level.

The report—“Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security”—lays out 10 ways to make sure universities have the support they need to maintain their global competitiveness. It suggests actions for federal governments, state governments, and industry, as well as the universities themselves.

“Public universities are taken for granted. We are the best but will we always be the best?” asks committee member William H. Frist, a former senator and transplant surgeon.

The report was originally requested by a bipartisan group of senators, and fittingly, the federal government is the focus of several suggestions. For example, the report begins with recommended reforms to improve the stability of federal research funding—including funding the full cost of research, rather than asking universities to pick up part of the tab—and streamline regulations that are costly for universities to follow.

Another recommendation calls for more support in two areas that are getting short shrift during this weak economic period. The areas are federal investment in young faculty members and research infrastructure. Congress and the President also need to reform the visa application process for international students and make it easier for Ph.D. graduates to stay in the U.S., the report suggests.

At the state level, per-student funding has fallen by an average of 25% and by as much as 50% over the past few years, and the report calls on states to return to previous funding levels as their budgets recover. It also suggests that loosening state requirements on universities would help them cut costs.

“The smart states are going to figure out that this is a competitive advantage,” says Charles O. (Chad) Holliday, chair of the NRC committee and former chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont.

Universities themselves need to undertake cost-cutting efforts to rein in rising tuition and improve their fiscal administration, the report points out. Changing demographics mean universities also need to ensure that women and minorities are encouraged to pursue science and math degrees, starting as early as K–12.

At the discipline level, graduate schools need to reform their programs so that students can finish more quickly and have a clearly defined path to a job when they complete their degrees. Businesses can have a big part in that by getting more involved in university research and helping universities design graduate programs to more closely align with current and projected jobs.

“We strongly agree that now is the time to revitalize the government-university-industry partnership in innovation,” says Hunter R. Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities.

The goal of this report, Holliday says, is not to sit on a shelf. Instead, the panel plans to spend the next year getting out the word, especially to industry and state government.

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