FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

National Academies Releases Report on Research Universities

Aline D. McNaull
Number 96 - July 6, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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On June 14th, the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Research Universities and the Board on Higher Education and Workforce released a report titled Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security.  The group was chaired by Chad Holliday, Chairman of the Board of Bank of America and Chairman and CEO of DuPont, and included scientists from research universities and industry.  Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), (now retired) Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN), and Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) requested the report as a  follow-up from the National Academies Report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future

The 227-page Research Universities report is intended to answer the question “what are the top ten 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 Research Universities report focuses on issues including research and doctoral programs, basic and applied research at research universities, doctoral education and the pathway to research careers, fields of study and research that are critical to helping United States competitiveness, an assessment of the capacity of research universities internationally and a vision of the long-term mission and organization for these institutions.    

Prescient and deliberate policies at the federal and state level have allowed US research universities to emerge as a national asset.  “In global rankings, U.S. research universities typically account for 35 to 40 of the top 50 such institutions in the world.  Since the 1930s, roughly 60 percent of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scholars at American institutions.” 

Though this is the case, the NRC found many challenges faced by universities.  The report discusses financial problems faced by research universities including that “each of their major sources of revenue has been undermined or contested.  Federal funding for research has flattened or declined; in the face of economic pressures and changing policy priorities, states are either unwilling or unable to continue support for their public research universities at world-class levels; endowments have deteriorated significantly in the recent recession; and tuition has risen beyond the reach of many American families.  At the same time, research universities also face strong forces of change that present both challenges and opportunities: demographic shifts in the U.S. population, transformative technologies, changes in the organization and scale of research, a global intensification of research networks, and changing relationships between research universities and industry.” 

The report includes issues faced by universities as they partner with the federal government, states, and businesses.  The issues identified include unstable federal funding, eroding state funding, the dismantling of large corporate research laboratories that were key players in American industrial leadership in the 20th century, and the need for universities to improve relations with stakeholders. 

Another set of issues identified in the report deals with the effectiveness of universities regarding doctoral education, efficient administration of research, and effective movement of the pipeline of students as they leave the universities.  Some of these concerns identified by the NRC include insufficient opportunities for young faculty at the start of their academic and research careers, international competition, underinvestment in campus infrastructure, insufficient funding from research sponsors, burdens in regulatory requirements, a need to improve doctoral and postdoctoral career training, and a need to improve programs that increase the success of female and underrepresented minority students.

The NRC report focused on ten recommendations to best leverage research universities to ensure they are productive and have access to proper resources that allow for innovation and effective partnerships with businesses.  Each recommendation was followed by budget implications and expected outcomes.

  • “The Federal government should adopt stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for university performed [research and development] and graduate education so that the nation will have a stream of new knowledge and educated people.”
  • “Provide greater autonomy for public research universities so that these institutions may leverage local and regional strengths to compete strategically and respond with agility to new opportunities.  At the same time, restore state appropriations for higher education, including graduate education and research, to levels that allow public research universities to operate at world-class levels.”
  • “Strengthen the business role in the research partnership, facilitating the transfer of knowledge, ideas and technology to society and accelerate ‘time to innovation’ in order to achieve our national goal.”
  • “Increase university cost-effectiveness and productivity in order to provide a greater return on investment for taxpayers, philanthropists, corporations, foundations, and other research sponsors.”
  • “Create a ‘strategic investment program’ that funds initiatives at research universities critical to advancing education and research in areas of key national priority.”
  • “The federal government and other research sponsors should strive to cover the full cost of research projects and other activities they procure from research universities in a consistent and transparent manner.”
  • “Reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.”
  • “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.”
  • “Secure for the United States the full benefits of education for all Americans, including women and underrepresented minorities, in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.”
  • “Ensure that the United States will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.”


The conclusion of the report emphasized the importance of the role of research universities:

“It is essential as a nation to reaffirm and revitalize the unique partnership that has long existed among the nation’s research universities, federal government, states, and businesses and industry.  The actions recommended will require significant policy changes, productivity enhancement, and investments on the part of each member of the research partnership.  Yet they also comprise a fair and balanced program that will generate significant returns to a stronger America.”

A hearing on this report and the perspective of the research university community was held in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on June 27 and will be the subject of a future FYI.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics