Research and Science Education Subcommittee Examines Challenges Faced by Research Universities

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Publication date: 
12 July 2012

The House Science Committee’s Research and Science Education  Subcommittee heard from representatives of the research university community in  a June 27 hearing.  The purpose of the  hearing was to examine the challenges faced by research universities and to  discuss their future outlook in addition to addressing steps that Congress,  federal and state governments, research universities and industry can take in  order to improve resource management.  Also  discussed at the hearing was a National Research Council (NRC) report, covered in a  previous FYI,  outlining ten breakthrough actions vital to prosperity and security.  The hearing allowed for Members of Congress  to hear the reaction to this report by the research university community.

Committee members from both parties agreed that research  universities play a vital role in America’s ability to maintain its  competitiveness and representatives were pleased to have the opportunity to  discuss the challenges faced by universities that were outlined in the NRC  report.  These issues include unstable  revenue streams, antiquated policies and practices, and increased  competitiveness from universities abroad.

Subcommittee chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) highlighted the role  of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established partnerships between the federal  government and states to build land grant universities.  This legislation resulted in the creation of a  modern agricultural and industrial economy in the 20th century.  Brooks highlighted the economic effect of  this Act and was interested in working to review measures that are currently  needed to improve resources for universities. 

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was interested in  discussing university efforts to accelerate the pace of discoveries as they  move from lab to market and how the federal government can help in these  efforts.  He was also interested in  learning about initiatives aimed at addressing student retention rates in science,  technology, engineering, and math (STEM).   Lastly, he was interested in how universities are working with industry  to graduate students with skills needed in the workplace. 

Chad Holliday, Chair of the Committee on Research  Universities at the National Academies, highlighted the prosperity that  Americans enjoy as a result of this nation’s universities.  He illustrated his point by stating that 60  percent of federally funded research comes from those universities and that 70  percent of US PhDs graduate from research universities.  He suggested that Congress make the research  and development tax credit permanent by rewarding companies in industry that  have a relationship with universities.   He also cited the need for immigration reform issues for the 55 percent  of foreign PhD students in the US that have temporary visas. 

John Mason, Associate Provost and Vice President for  Research at Auburn University, stated that he “recognized and embraced the oversight and transparency that is  necessary with the use of public funds.   However in certain areas, where there are redundant reviews and audits,  it appears we are focused on process rather than results.”  He stressed the importance of long term  partnerships between business, industry, and universities.  Regarding the issue of national priorities he  stated that “unfortunately short term  shifting of national priorities creates a perverse incentive to chase funding  rather than chase the discovery that will create jobs in the United States.”

Jeffrey Seemann, Vice President for Research at Texas  A&M University and Chief Research Officer for the Texas A&M University  System, provided four complementary actions reflected in the NRC  recommendations: universities must focus on grand research challenges and areas  of national interest by prioritizing investments of internal resources, federal  agencies must support these priorities of shared national interest, research  universities must utilize resources even more efficiently and transparently  than currently is the case, and federal agencies and regulators “must act to reduce or eliminate  unnecessarily, overly burdensome, redundant and costly regulatory and reporting  obligations placed on the research operations of universities and faculty.”

Leslie Tolbert, Senior Vice President for Research at the  University of Arizona, highlighted the NRC report finding that “federal and state agencies must understand  and support the critical role played by university fundamental research and the  continuum through to new product development.”  She added that universities should be reimbursed  for overhead costs for necessary expenditures that support their research and  emphasized the need for streamlining regulatory controls on federally funded  research. 

James Siedow, Vice Provost for Research at Duke University, stressed  the need to strengthen the linkage between research universities and  industry.  He discussed how currently  this partnership has been reduced to a fee-for-service transaction.  He suggested that there are gaps in this  current system that can be filled by a different type of relationship between  the universities and industry.  This new  relationship would use the federal government to broker this more effective  peer-to-peer partnership between the two entities.

During the questioning period, funding levels for research  universities were addressed by both sides of the aisle.  Brooks pointed out that there are a lot of  competing demands for federal government money during these tight economic  times.  He questioning how to address the  suggestion of investments listed in the NRC report, while taking into  consideration the projected outlook for federal and state funding levels in the  next several years.   Lipinski stressed the serious financial situation  that public universities are facing and expressed concern as to the falling  level of state funding for public universities. 

Witnesses noted that though the deployment of funds  recommended by the NRC report may not be currently available due to the current  fiscal climate, there is a great deal that could be changed regarding  regulatory burdens.  Seemann stated that “regulatory burdens that are placed on us  are extraordinarily costly” as he pointed out that addressing these  non-research activities associated with regulations may take up to 40 percent  of a faculty member’s time.  Tolbert  added that the regulatory burden is growing and that it “has an impact on federal spending and university spending.”  She stated that universities would like to be  partners in developing rational policy that will streamline federal regulations  and specifically cited the need for better policy in the area of export  controls and the need for greater efficiency in effort reporting.  Siedow also highlighted the need for  streamlining regulations, stating that “collaborations  are an excellent way to achieve efficiencies.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) expressed his  frustration stating that he was “feeling  like we have very little vision as far as science policy goes for our  nation….  We need to change that,” he  emphasized.  He highlighted the sense of frustration  of the physics community at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory stating that  he would like to encourage them and the rest of the research community to come  forward to talk to Members of Congress about the importance of science.  Brooks ended the hearing with the charge to  scientists to come forward with information about specific regulations that  Congress should be involved in, or not involved in, and which regulations  should be repealed or reformed.