FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Research and Science Education Subcommittee Examines Challenges Faced by Research Universities

Aline D. McNaull
Number 99 - July 12, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Science Committee’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee heard from representatives of the research university community in a June 27 hearing.  The purpose of the hearing was to examine the challenges faced by research universities and to discuss their future outlook in addition to addressing steps that Congress, federal and state governments, research universities and industry can take in order to improve resource management.  Also discussed at the hearing was a National Research Council (NRC) report, covered in a previous FYI, outlining ten breakthrough actions vital to prosperity and security.  The hearing allowed for Members of Congress to hear the reaction to this report by the research university community.

Committee members from both parties agreed that research universities play a vital role in America’s ability to maintain its competitiveness and representatives were pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the challenges faced by universities that were outlined in the NRC report.  These issues include unstable revenue streams, antiquated policies and practices, and increased competitiveness from universities abroad.

Subcommittee chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) highlighted the role of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established partnerships between the federal government and states to build land grant universities.  This legislation resulted in the creation of a modern agricultural and industrial economy in the 20th century.  Brooks highlighted the economic effect of this Act and was interested in working to review measures that are currently needed to improve resources for universities. 

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was interested in discussing university efforts to accelerate the pace of discoveries as they move from lab to market and how the federal government can help in these efforts.  He was also interested in learning about initiatives aimed at addressing student retention rates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  Lastly, he was interested in how universities are working with industry to graduate students with skills needed in the workplace. 

Chad Holliday, Chair of the Committee on Research Universities at the National Academies, highlighted the prosperity that Americans enjoy as a result of this nation’s universities.  He illustrated his point by stating that 60 percent of federally funded research comes from those universities and that 70 percent of US PhDs graduate from research universities.  He suggested that Congress make the research and development tax credit permanent by rewarding companies in industry that have a relationship with universities.  He also cited the need for immigration reform issues for the 55 percent of foreign PhD students in the US that have temporary visas. 

John Mason, Associate Provost and Vice President for Research at Auburn University, stated that he “recognized and embraced the oversight and transparency that is necessary with the use of public funds.  However in certain areas, where there are redundant reviews and audits, it appears we are focused on process rather than results.”  He stressed the importance of long term partnerships between business, industry, and universities.  Regarding the issue of national priorities he stated that “unfortunately short term shifting of national priorities creates a perverse incentive to chase funding rather than chase the discovery that will create jobs in the United States.”

Jeffrey Seemann, Vice President for Research at Texas A&M University and Chief Research Officer for the Texas A&M University System, provided four complementary actions reflected in the NRC recommendations: universities must focus on grand research challenges and areas of national interest by prioritizing investments of internal resources, federal agencies must support these priorities of shared national interest, research universities must utilize resources even more efficiently and transparently than currently is the case, and federal agencies and regulators “must act to reduce or eliminate unnecessarily, overly burdensome, redundant and costly regulatory and reporting obligations placed on the research operations of universities and faculty.”

Leslie Tolbert, Senior Vice President for Research at the University of Arizona, highlighted the NRC report finding that “federal and state agencies must understand and support the critical role played by university fundamental research and the continuum through to new product development.”  She added that universities should be reimbursed for overhead costs for necessary expenditures that support their research and emphasized the need for streamlining regulatory controls on federally funded research. 

James Siedow, Vice Provost for Research at Duke University, stressed the need to strengthen the linkage between research universities and industry.  He discussed how currently this partnership has been reduced to a fee-for-service transaction.  He suggested that there are gaps in this current system that can be filled by a different type of relationship between the universities and industry.  This new relationship would use the federal government to broker this more effective peer-to-peer partnership between the two entities.

During the questioning period, funding levels for research universities were addressed by both sides of the aisle.  Brooks pointed out that there are a lot of competing demands for federal government money during these tight economic times.  He questioning how to address the suggestion of investments listed in the NRC report, while taking into consideration the projected outlook for federal and state funding levels in the next several years.   Lipinski stressed the serious financial situation that public universities are facing and expressed concern as to the falling level of state funding for public universities. 

Witnesses noted that though the deployment of funds recommended by the NRC report may not be currently available due to the current fiscal climate, there is a great deal that could be changed regarding regulatory burdens.  Seemann stated that “regulatory burdens that are placed on us are extraordinarily costly” as he pointed out that addressing these non-research activities associated with regulations may take up to 40 percent of a faculty member’s time.  Tolbert added that the regulatory burden is growing and that it “has an impact on federal spending and university spending.”  She stated that universities would like to be partners in developing rational policy that will streamline federal regulations and specifically cited the need for better policy in the area of export controls and the need for greater efficiency in effort reporting.  Siedow also highlighted the need for streamlining regulations, stating that “collaborations are an excellent way to achieve efficiencies.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) expressed his frustration stating that he was “feeling like we have very little vision as far as science policy goes for our nation….  We need to change that,” he emphasized.  He highlighted the sense of frustration of the physics community at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory stating that he would like to encourage them and the rest of the research community to come forward to talk to Members of Congress about the importance of science.  Brooks ended the hearing with the charge to scientists to come forward with information about specific regulations that Congress should be involved in, or not involved in, and which regulations should be repealed or reformed.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics