State budget cuts pose a significant threat to the quality of research in the United States, a panel of educators said earlier this month at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.
While federal grants support 60 percent of university research, AAAS senior policy adviser Albert Teich said, America’s diverse and decentralized education system depends heavily on state funds as well. Two-thirds of U.S. universities with “very high research activity” are state-supported, according to the Carnegie Foundation.
That in turn represents a big chunk of the total research done in the United States. Universities perform more than half of the nation’s basic research — triple what’s done in business or federal government laboratories, said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.
State universities hire and set the rules for the way research faculty go about their jobs. State schools also traditionally have provided access to higher education for students who couldn’t afford more expensive private institutions, expanding the pool of potential scientists and facilitating mobility up the economic ladder in the process, said Irwin Feller, a Penn State University economist who has studied universities and state governments.
“We tend to focus on the federal level,” at gatherings like the annual AAAS forum on science and technology policy, Feller said. “But the problem right now is at the state level.”
State support of higher education has been declining for a decade, Feller said, and that’s been aggravated recently by the recession and “political decisions being made across a broad swath of state governments.”
“The cuts are severe,” he said, and some state policy changes will diminish state universities’ ability to employ the best professors. Salaries are stagnant, tenure is under attack, and some states are mandating heavier teaching loads, he said.
Moves to address federal budget deficits also could squeeze universities, panelists noted.
These developments are putting universities under economic stress “the likes of which I have never seen,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. She questioned whether good graduate schools will be able to sustain their comprehensive programs. And she warned that research and education cutbacks will be detrimental to the United States at a time of “profound global competition.”
While U.S. research universities are “the envy of the world,” Smith said, they are not perfect and must address certain failings. They need to tear down academic stovepipes and promote multidisciplinary research and education, he said. They need to increase the proportion of entering undergraduate science majors who stick with science through graduation, he added.
Schools also must track their doctoral graduates' careers to determine whether graduate programs prepare their students for the real world, Stewart said. Half of doctoral candidates take nonacademic jobs after graduation, she noted, but many doctoral programs assume graduates will take positions in academic institutions.
As Beryl Lief Benderly wrote for Miller-McCune last June in “The Real Science Gap,” “Scientists-in-training also need effective means of preparing themselves for the careers that exist outside the academy. This will require universities to provide resources and time during graduate school and postdoc years for learning unrelated to an ever-narrowing focus on a single research question.”
“We need to prepare doctoral candidates for the jobs they get,” Stewart said, “not the jobs their teachers have.”