Funding and future of US public research


Draft Manuscript for Innovations



through research is a critical element to a nation’s success in the highly
competitive global marketplace.  University research provides the base
from which an important part of the most competitive innovations arise. 
The modern research university, with synergy flowing from a mix of research,
graduate study and undergraduate instruction, is vital to simultaneously
generating needed knowledge while also educating future generations of
researchers and able graduates primed to take advantage of research
findings.  In the U.S.
the very high proportion of research and graduate education done by public
universities makes their futures key the future competitive success of the


The United States depends on public
research universities to:

  • Educate 85 percent of undergraduate students and 70 percent of
    graduate students enrolled in all research universities.

Educate more than 50 percent of the doctorates produced annually in the
United States in 11 of the 13 national needs categories, including 92 percent
of doctoral degrees in agriculture, nearly 90 percent in natural resources and
conservation, and 60 to 80 percent in computer and information sciences,
engineering, foreign


  • languages and
    linguistics, mathematics and statistics, physical sciences and security.

  • Serve as the primary route
    to a research university degree for minority students, with more than 800,000
    minority students enrolled in public research universities while just over
    182,000 attend private institutions

  • Perform about 60 percent of the nation’s federally funded academic
    research, some $34 billion annually. 

  • Serve as an engine for the economy—research at public
    universities in fiscal year 2008 led to:

start-up companies,

new technology licenses (16,555 are actively in force),

applications for new patents, and



recent decades and accelerating in the last two years, the state appropriation
per student for many U.S. research universities has deteriorated and their
ability to continue serve the nation’s research needs is threatened.  In
addition, both public and private research universities have been harmed
financially as endowment balances declined along with the markets.  The nation’s web of public and private
research universities is interdependent; significant weakening of major
research universities reduces the ability of the system to serve the nation’s
needs.  Strong public and strong private universities are essential to
this nation’s future prosperity.


In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences published Rising Above the
Gathering Storm
, a landmark report recommending many courses of action to
ensure the future competitiveness of the U.S. economy.  Among its recommendations directly targeting
research universities were:
 Sustain and strengthen the nation’s
traditional commitment to long-term basic
research . . .[2] become the
most attractive setting in which to study and perform
research so that we can develop, recruit, and
retain the
best and brightest students, scientists, and engineers from within the
United States and throughout the world
[3] and ensure that universities
and government laboratories create and maintain the facilities,
instrumentation, and equipment needed for leading-edge scientific discovery and
technological development.
[4]  While many
of the report’s recommendations have been or are being implemented by actions
at the federal level, the long-term reduction of real funding from the states
to the nation’s public universities has reduced the ability of many of them to
contribute to these goals.  Given the national
reliance on public universities for majority contributions to the nation’s need
to advance knowledge and prepare new scientists and engineers, a serious
decline in the capacity of public research universities critically risks the
attainment of these national goals.


Above the Gathering Storm was
initiated by a request from members of Congress, Senators Barbara Mikulski
(D-MD) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN) and
Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked the National Academy of Sciences on June 22, 2009 to
initiate a new competitiveness study focused specifically on the health of
research universities. Their request expressed concern that America’s research universities
were “at risk” and asked the National Academies to study the competitive
position of American research universities, both public and private, and
respond to the following question: 


What are the top ten actions
that Congress, 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


National Academies agreed to perform the study and it is scheduled to begin its
work in 2010. 


State Support
for Public Research Universities is Declining


Our focus is on public research
universities because evidence of their deteriorating financial situation forces
consideration of their critical ability to serve the nation’s needs in the
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher
this year, Paul Courant, James Duderstadt and Edie
Goldenberg describe a “failing” partnership between the states and federal


Today, the state side of the partnership is failing.  Public institutions of higher education are
gravely threatened.  State support of
public universities, on a per student basis, has been declining for over two
decades; it was at the lowest level in 25 years even before the current
economic crisis.  As the global recession
has deepened, declining tax revenues have driven state after state to further
reduce appropriations for higher education, with cuts ranging as high as 20% to
30%, threatening to cripple many of the nation’s leading state universities and
erode their world-class quality.[2]


The decline in state support during the period 1987-2007 has been
especially severe at public universities classified by the Carnegie Foundation
as “high” and “very high”

research universities. 
Real per full-time enrolled (FTE) student state appropriations revenue declined
13.2 percent at very high research public universities and 12.9 percent at the
high research publics.  This stands in contrast to the slightly smaller
real decline of 9.1 percent for all state higher education per FTE


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