What the Doctor May Not Be Telling You

U.S. research universities need almost $100 billion in new federal support over the next decade to remain the best in the world, according to a report released today by the National Academies. The report, requested by Congress, also recommends that state governments reverse dramatic cuts in funding for higher education and that the federal government eases the regulatory burdens on universities. In return, the report asks institutions to operate more efficiently and do a better job of preparing graduate students for scientific careers.

In 2009, a bipartisan quartet of legislators active on national science policy—senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and representatives Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Bart Gordon (D-TN)—asked the academies to come up with a top-10 list of steps the country should take to "maintain excellence in research education." A blue ribbon panel of prominent academics, former politicians, and business leaders led by former DuPont CEO Charles Holliday held a series of meetings to gather input for a report that was due out last summer, but the academies' exhaustive vetting process delayed its release by almost a year.

The 250-page report was given to media under an embargo, so this story provides neither outside comments nor the views of the authors, who held a public briefing this morning at the academies' renovated headquarters in Washington, D.C. ScienceInsider will be reporting on that event, so stay tuned.

The current political and financial situation seems fairly hostile to the report's prescription for the continued health of U.S. academic research. That's because the underlying assumption that universities deserve significant additional public funding runs counter to two realities that will affect higher education.

The first is the likelihood of substantial slowing or even cuts in federal spending, including the budgets of agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) that fund academic research. The second is the growing public unhappiness with the quality and value of a college education, leading to demands that university administrators must do a better job of educating students and controlling costs. The report makes scant reference to either of these two realities, although it does acknowledge that states will be hard-pressed to reverse funding cuts to higher education because of "current budget challenges and shifting priorities."

The 10 recommendations in the report are intended to cover the universe of issues affecting the health of the academic research enterprise. As such, there is plenty of meat for the community to chew on. Here are four issues central to the report that may warrant closer scrutiny.

Long-term funding trends

The report states repeatedly that federal funding for academic research "has flattened or declined." It's a common complaint among the research community. But the data paint a different picture.

NSF data show that federal support for university research doubled from 1999 to 2009, from $16.1 billion to $32.6 billion. The same is true for basic research, which comprises roughly three-quarters of the total. And the 2009 number doesn't reflect spending from the massive, 2-year economic stimulus package, which included $10.4 billion for NIH and $3 billion for NSF, that was spent in 2010 and 2011.

The report makes its case by representing academic spending as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). By that reckoning, academic spending held relatively steady throughout the 1990s, at about 0.17% of GDP, before rising sharply during the 5-year doubling of NIH's budget and peaking at 0.24% of GDP in 2004. By 2008, the percentage had slipped to 0.22% but was still considerably higher than a decade earlier. The report says that adopting its recommendations "would help reverse these declines."

NSF officials who work with the data say that their academic spending numbers don't actually line up with GDP figures, and their reports don't link the two. At the same time, the recession that hit in 2008 lowered GDP and, as a result, likely pushed up the academic spending percentage for 2009 and 2010.

The international competitiveness of the U.S. research enterprise

The report suggests that the fact that some industrialized nations (both government and industry) are spending a larger share of their GDP on research is proof that the United States is losing its competitive advantage. But many economists say that's not necessarily true.

The research-to-GDP ratio—3.5% for Japan and Korea vs. 2.8% for the United States, for example—is only one of several factors that determine a nation's ability to innovate. Tax and trade policies, sources of venture capital, a skilled labor force, and a culture of entrepreneurship also play a big role. Japan's 20-year economic slump should be a cautionary tale, they say, and Germany has become an economic powerhouse despite having a percentage that is slightly lower than the U.S. percentage.

The value of authorizing legislation

The report notes that both parties have supported legislation that would double federal research spending at key agencies and suggests that all Congress needs to do is implement the spending levels in the law. The reality is that things do not work that way in Washington.

The law that the report cites is the America COMPETES Act, first passed in 2007 by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Republican president and then reauthorized in 2010. It calls for putting the budgets of three important research agencies—NSF, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—on a 10-year doubling path by increasing their spending levels in 2011, 2012, and 2013. But there's no money attached to the law. The cash must come from Congress's appropriations committees through a complicated process that has become an annual high-wire act. And science is a bit player in that process.

To make good on the authorized levels in the 2010 COMPETES Act, Congress would need to spend an additional $4.9 billion. At NSF, for example, that would mean a budget of $8.3 billion for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October. But that's not going to happen. President Barack Obama, who embraces the policies espoused in the COMPETES Act, has requested nearly $1 billion less than that for NSF in 2013, and Congress is unlikely to give NSF even that request.

Streamlining graduate education

The report identifies high attrition rates and never-ending doctoral programs as an inefficient use of federal resources and suggests universities are ready to adopt and implement new policies that will correct these problems. If only it were that simple.

Graduate education is probably the most decentralized segment of U.S. higher education. Discipline-based departments still call most of the shots for admission, retention, and completion requirements, and the relationship between graduate student and adviser remains sacrosanct. The report's meandering discussion of the relative pros and cons of fellowships, traineeships, and research assistance highlights the lack of consensus across funding agencies and within the community itself on an issue at the heart of how graduate education is financed. In fact, the report's call for a $1.6 billion-a-year program that would restore the number of federally funded, full-time graduate students to a 2004 peak of 84,000—it's now 78,000—blandly suggests that the new program be accompanied by "a review of the proper package of support for doctoral students." It would be decades, if ever, before the impact of such a review would begin to bend the curve on either issue.