Funding and future of US public research


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Innovation 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 country.


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:

o     358 start-up companies,

o      2,891 new technology licenses (16,555 are actively in force),

o      6,460 applications for new patents, and

o      1,791 patents.[1]


In 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 21stcentury.[1]


The 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 future.  Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education this year, Paul Courant, James Duderstadt and Edie Goldenberg describe a “failing” partnership between the states and federal government:


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 student. 


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