National Academies Releases Report on Research Universities

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Publication date: 
6 July 2012

On June 14th, the National Research Council (NRC)  Committee on Research Universities and the Board on Higher Education and  Workforce released a report titled Research Universities and  the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity  and Security.  The group was  chaired by Chad Holliday, Chairman of the Board of Bank of America and Chairman  and CEO of DuPont, and included scientists from research universities and  industry.  Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN)  and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), (now retired) Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN),  and Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) requested the report as a  follow-up from the National Academies Report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing  and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future

The 227-page Research  Universities report is intended to answer the question “what are the top ten 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 Research  Universities report focuses on issues including research and doctoral  programs, basic and applied research at research universities, doctoral  education and the pathway to research careers, fields of study and research that  are critical to helping United States competitiveness, an assessment of the  capacity of research universities internationally and a vision of the long-term  mission and organization for these institutions.   

Prescient and deliberate policies at the federal and state  level have allowed US research universities to emerge as a national asset.  “In  global rankings, U.S. research universities typically account for 35 to 40 of  the top 50 such institutions in the world.   Since the 1930s, roughly 60 percent of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to  scholars at American institutions.” 

Though this is the case, the NRC found many challenges faced  by universities.  The report discusses  financial problems faced by research universities including that “each of their major sources of revenue has  been undermined or contested.  Federal  funding for research has flattened or declined; in the face of economic  pressures and changing policy priorities, states are either unwilling or unable  to continue support for their public research universities at world-class  levels; endowments have deteriorated significantly in the recent recession; and  tuition has risen beyond the reach of many American families.  At the same time, research universities also  face strong forces of change that present both challenges and opportunities:  demographic shifts in the U.S. population, transformative technologies, changes  in the organization and scale of research, a global intensification of research  networks, and changing relationships between research universities and  industry.” 

The report includes issues faced by universities as they  partner with the federal government, states, and businesses.  The issues identified include unstable  federal funding, eroding state funding, the dismantling of large corporate research  laboratories that were key players in American industrial leadership in the 20th  century, and the need for universities to improve relations with  stakeholders. 

Another set of issues identified in the report deals with  the effectiveness of universities regarding doctoral education, efficient  administration of research, and effective movement of the pipeline of students  as they leave the universities.  Some of  these concerns identified by the NRC include insufficient opportunities for  young faculty at the start of their academic and research careers, international  competition, underinvestment in campus infrastructure, insufficient funding  from research sponsors, burdens in regulatory requirements, a need to improve  doctoral and postdoctoral career training, and a need to improve programs that  increase the success of female and underrepresented minority students.

The NRC report focused on ten recommendations to best  leverage research universities to ensure they are productive and have access to  proper resources that allow for innovation and effective partnerships with  businesses.  Each recommendation was  followed by budget implications and expected outcomes.

  • “The Federal government should adopt stable and  effective policies, practices, and funding for university performed [research  and development] and graduate education so that the nation will have a stream  of new knowledge and educated people.”
  • “Provide greater autonomy for public research  universities so that these institutions may leverage local and regional  strengths to compete strategically and respond with agility to new  opportunities.  At the same time, restore  state appropriations for higher education, including graduate education and  research, to levels that allow public research universities to operate at  world-class levels.”
  • “Strengthen the business role in the research  partnership, facilitating the transfer of knowledge, ideas and technology to  society and accelerate ‘time to innovation’ in order to achieve our national  goal.”
  • “Increase university cost-effectiveness and  productivity in order to provide a greater return on investment for taxpayers,  philanthropists, corporations, foundations, and other research sponsors.”
  • “Create a ‘strategic investment program’ that  funds initiatives at research universities critical to advancing education and  research in areas of key national priority.”
  • “The federal government and other research  sponsors should strive to cover the full cost of research projects and other  activities they procure from research universities in a consistent and  transparent manner.”
  • “Reduce or eliminate regulations that increase  administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy  without substantially improving the research environment.”
  • “Improve the capacity of graduate programs to  attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time to  degree, funding, and alignment with both student career opportunities and  national interests.”
  • “Secure for the United States the full benefits  of education for all Americans, including women and underrepresented  minorities, in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.”
  • “Ensure that the United States will continue to  benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars  in our research enterprise.”


The conclusion of the report emphasized the importance of  the role of research universities:

“It is essential as a  nation to reaffirm and revitalize the unique partnership that has long existed  among the nation’s research universities, federal government, states, and  businesses and industry.  The actions  recommended will require significant policy changes, productivity enhancement,  and investments on the part of each member of the research partnership.  Yet they also comprise a fair and balanced  program that will generate significant returns to a stronger America.”

A hearing on this report and the perspective of the research  university community was held in the House Science, Space and Technology  Committee on June 27 and will be the subject of a future FYI.