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Retaining Excellence in U.S. Research Universities

In a series of upcoming Q&A sessions, academics and other observers will review the fiscal and competitive challenges facing U.S. research institutions and what might solve them.
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The same week that President Obama called for the United States to regain its lead as the world's best-educated nation, the University of California system turned away 30,000 students.

This was roughly two years ago, but since then the fiscal picture has only darkened — for the federal government as well on the state level. The Golden State labors under a particularly gargantuan deficit — and the regents of the University of California responded by raising tuition a second time this year — but its predicament is emblematic of a central challenge for higher education across the United States. Just as alarming is the precipitous, and concomitant, decline in research taking place at the nation's major universities, public and private.

Stimulus money from the American Recovery Act has delayed the wrenching changes ahead, but the telltale signs are clear. State support per student is lower than it has been for 25 years, and private college endowments are not expected to recover to pre-crash levels for another 10-15 years, according to informed reckonings. Similar reckonings surround research at public institutions.

This comes as other nations rev up their commitment to higher education and research institutions.

China now spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development and has, in just the last five years, more than doubled the number of higher education institutions; the student population has surged from 1 million to 5 million during the same period. China is now the world's largest generator of scientific papers (quality is another matter, but these increasingly involve international collaboration).

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Last November, China published its "National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020)" that lays out ambitious plans to boost patent filings from 300,000 in 2009 to more than 2 million by 2015. China's patent surge, evident for several years, is stoked by government cash bonuses and better housing for individual filers and tax breaks for prolific patent-producing companies.

In the Middle East, credible efforts to stand up new world-class institutions include the $10 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which demonstrated its earnestness by recruiting highly regarded Harvard-trained academic Choon Fong Shih — who had already worked wonders at the National University of Singapore — as founding president. The university, Saudi Arabia's first mixed-sex university (even exempt from religious police patrols), uses English as the official language of instruction for programs focused exclusively on graduate education and research in life sciences, engineering, computer science and physical sciences.

Such new efforts will divert part of the geyser of international graduate students who have been a secret source of strength for American university research for years.

A National Academies of Sciences-assembled panel of experts, headed by former DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, has been asked: "What are the top 10 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 panel's progress to date can be seen here; it is expected to issue a report soon.

It's billed as an equally vital successor to the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" study, a 2006 report that jolted Congress to pass the America COMPETES Act in 2007. That legislation aimed to revitalize American competitiveness through R&D-generated innovation, especially in "high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need." (It was reauthorized in May 2010.)

Even before the new report arrives there is no escaping the shrunken universe American research universities occupy. There will be fewer research universities and narrower portfolios. Just how deep the cuts will bite — and their implications for government and the economy — are unclear.

The nation's spies, who have long benefited from the U.S.'s pre-eminent position in science and technology, suggest that the pain will be felt soon. "That the United States probably continues to dominate in some or most traditional areas of [science and technology] tends to mask the 'rate of closure' and to obscure the near certainty that in some very important areas we will soon lose our historic lead," read an Intelligence Science Board report penned in 2006 not but released until last year.

University-corporate partnerships, for one, will likely continue to strengthen in the U.S. (sharpening debates about its trade-offs), but increasingly globalized corporations likely will do more of this collaborative R&D overseas, especially as foreign universities proliferate and improved foreign knowledge levels offer more opportunities.

With many institutions already facing yawning needs (to replace crumbling or cramped infrastructure), some university presidents are clamoring for radical changes to federal support of higher education, for example, providing funds to institutions directly, rather than through individual faculty, and to pay the full cost of research. It remains to seen though whether many of these suggested remedies - discussed in more detail in the accompanying series of interviews with senior players in the university research field - will get the traction they need to travel far beyond cushy ivy towers. And political considerations -- such Texas Gov. Rick Perry's attempts to re-engineer the University of Texas system -- may play havoc with existing structures.

The consequences of these trends for the U.S., its global standing, - and the broader issue of research's role in solving the world's challenges - will be the focus of several question-and answer sessions with some of the academics and observers working to shape the challenging future that will present as the traditional school year resumes.

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