Research universities: Sustaining them as America’s future

June 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

We can say without reservation that our research universities are, today, the best in the world and an important resource for our nation, yet at the same time, they are in grave danger of not only losing their place of global leadership but of serious erosion in quality due to critical trends in public support.

–Report by National Research Council, “Research Universities and the Future of America”

In a report “Research Universities and the Future of America” released today, the National Research Council of the National Academies described 10 steps that need to be taken for research institutions in the U.S. to stay ahead of the game. (Here’s the news release from the National Academies)

This report comes at the request of U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and U.S. Reps. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Ralph Hall, R-Texas. In 2009, they requested that the National Academies provide a follow-up report to the highly influential 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”

In the new report, the committee, chaired by Chad Holliday, chairman of the Board at Bank of America and the former chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont, paints a pretty bleak picture of the current state of support for innovations in science and technology at American reesarch institutions. Federal funding for university research has been unstable and declining. Other countries, in contrast, have increased funding for research and development. The recent recession has hit hard state funding for higher education, which already was declining. Industry has dismantled large research labs (think: Bell Labs) that drove American innovation in science and technology in the past century. Research universities have to improve their management, productivity and cost-efficiency.

So what to do?

The committee makes 10 recommendations, outlining the roles that can be played by federal and state governments, industry and universities. They also outline what it will cost to implement the recommendations.

I am not going to list out all 10 recommendations. The ones that caught my eye were recommendation Nos. 8 and 9. No. 8 says:

Improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time to degree, funding, and alignment with both student career opportunities and national interests.

The committee said research universities should restructure their Ph.D. programs to, among other things, help graduates start careers either inside or outside of academia. As I noted in a recent post, the degree does more than prepare you to do research. I am glad to see the heavy-hitters on the committee, including Nobel laureate and ASBMB member Peter Agre, come out and say so.

In the report, the committee said:

Strengthening preparation of doctorates for a broad range of careers, not just those in academia, assists the students in their careers, and also assists employers who need their staff to be productive in the short term. This benefits new doctorates, employers, and society.

It said raising  the number of federal fellowships and traineeships to support 5,000 new graduate students annually in science and engineering would cost$325 million in the first year and go up to $1.625 billion each year after that and then hold at that amout. The committee doesn’t advocate churning out more and more graduate students but says the money should be used to restructure the training programs and lure the best students.

I am also glad to see that the committee says that the time to get a Ph.D. should be reduced. I know education is a lifelong process, but you don’t need to be stuck in a Ph.D. hole for more than six years. You can do your self-improvement elsewhere. 

The committee also points out that the potential for great science master’s programs is there, and research universities need to tap into that potential and offer the option.

Recommendation No. 9 states:

Secure for the United States the full benefits of education for all Americans, including women and underrepresented minorities, in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

This is a no-brainer.  It’s is an issue that obviously goes beyond academia and has to take in social and economic considerations. The committee’s recommendation covers kindergarten all the way up to employment, making sure education and employment systems pay attention to the needs of minorities and women. It refers to different reports, such as “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty” and “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads,” which it used to make itsrecommendation.

In what must be the longest sentence in the report, the committee says:

The report identifies the importance of leadership in creating a positive institutional environment for minority integration and success; practical steps that can be taken to increase the completion of minorities (making student success a priority, tracking student achievement, identifying choke points such as course availability, and improving course transfer); key elements for successful program development (resources and sustainability, coordination and integration, focus on the pipeline and transition points, program design execution, and evaluation); and proven, intensive interventions for underrepresented minorities in STEM (summer programs, research experiences, professional development activities, academic support and social integration, and mentoring).

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