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The Condition of U.S. Research Universities

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Four Members of Congress have asked the National Academies to assess the competitive position of our research universities, both public and private. In a letter delivered on June 22 to the Ralph Cicerone (President of the National Academy of Sciences), Harvey Fineberg (President of the Institute of Medicine) and Charles Vest (President of the National Academy of Engineering), the bipartisan congressional asked that an Academies’ panel answer the following question:  “What are the top ten actions that Congress, 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?”

A similar congressional request in 2005 led to the Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The report’s 20 recommendations were the basis of the America COMPETES Act, which created a blueprint for improving the teaching of math and science, doubling funding for basic research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other steps to put the U.S. at the cutting edge of science and technology.  

Hoping to remain remain ever vigilant in retaining our competitive edge, the following leaders signed the letter to the Academies: U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations; Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a former U.S. Secretary of Education and Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference; and U.S. Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ralph Hall (R-TX), the respective Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

I applaud this effort. Our universities sustain much our innovation economy. I hope that during this assessment of the organizational, intellectual and financial capacity of our research universities, the experts devote serious attention to the current sub-optimal technology transfer outcomes and the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in many U.S. universities. Measures to address these two areas should be included in the “top ten actions,” as I have argued in “The Entrepreneurial University: A Institutional Innovation.” Addressing these obvious deficiencies will require a careful analysis of university-industry relations and the contribution those relations might make to the nation’s future. Particularly, the tradition of universities shielding themselves from private industry needs to be reassessed. The experience of the most successful entrepreneurial universities suggests that close, reciprocal relationships with industry can create vibrant economic regions around universities (e.g., Silicon Valley). For instance, how can universities and industry collaborate to support early-stage innovative ideas from students and faculty? Advice from industry experts can be crucial at that stage, so strong networks are necessary to connect these “worlds.” The government, as a major funder of basic research at universities can foster such networks and many other non-traditional arrangements to advance innovation.

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