America’s scientific advisers conclude that the nation’s well-being depends on greater funding for its research universities, but not everyone agrees

The US’s prosperity and security depend upon greater public investment in its research universities over the next decade, the US National Research Council (NRC) concluded in a 14 June report. But not everyone is in agreement.

The report from the NRC, the working group of the US National Academies, offers 10 recommendations to implement over the next five to 10 years to help the US maintain top-quality research institutions and thrive economically. Requested by Congress, the document builds on the landmark National Academies’ study on US competitiveness from 2007, titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm. This report warned that the US’s leadership in science and technology is precarious, and it urged a doubling of the federal basic research budget. An update in September 2010 concluded that the situation was worsening and now the new NRC report renews this call to action.

‘You can raise taxes and cut spending, but how do you grow the pie?’ asked former Republican Senate leader Bill Frist, a member of the panel that wrote the new NRC report. He said the answer involves greater funding for research universities, which advance knowledge and innovation.

The report was praised by higher education groups like the Association of American Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, which echoed its plea for greater public investment in US academic research.

But others were more critical, arguing that the current waste in US higher education needs to be addressed before public funding for university research is systematically increased. ‘If universities economise, as they should, why then would you need increased funding from state and local government?’ asks Tom Lindsay, who directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Policy Foundation, which promotes free markets and limited government. The average tuition at US colleges and universities has skyrocketed 440% over the last 30 years, which is nearly four times above the rate of inflation, Lindsay says.

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, DC, also questions the report’s conclusions. ‘Every few years, the NRC pleads for more money for science and that seems a little bit self-serving,’ he tells Chemistry World. ‘We need the empirical evidence.’

On the edge

The US currently has global scientific preeminence, housing more than 35 of the world’s 50 leading research universities, but the NRC committee says its competitive-edge is threatened. The panel found that US federal research funding has been declining in real terms and state support for research institutions fell by between as much as 25% and 50% over the last decade.

Meanwhile, other countries have increased R&D funding and are investing significantly more in their own research institutions. US public and private R&D expenditure has hovered between 2.5% and 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) over the last three decades, while Japan and South Korea have increased theirs to well over 3% of GDP in recent years, the NRC noted.
It recommended that Congress and the administration fully fund the America COMPETES Act over the next decade, which would double funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology’s laboratories and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The panel further urged states to commit to significantly increasing support for higher education, including public research universities, and suggested that academic institutions improve their cost effectiveness and productivity. It also called for an easing of US visa procedures for international scholars looking to study or conduct research there.