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What Do U.S. Research Universities Need?

Four members of Congress have asked the U.S. National Academies to tell it what the government needs to do to keep U.S. academic research strong. A similar 2005 letter spawned the influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report on how to strengthen the U.S. economy by investing more in research and training of the scientific workforce. Leaders of higher education are hoping that this new report will do the same for their "industry," which leads the world in producing scientific talent and knowledge but sees its lead eroding.

The study owes much to a February meeting between Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., during which Berdahl stressed the "growing disparity of resources" between leading private and public research universities. The congressional letter (pdf), signed by Alexander and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) along with the chair and ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, does not highlight that disparity but talks more broadly of those institutions being "under stress." The legislators hint at part of their agenda by describing how the assessment should examine "the relationship, or lack of relationship, of our research universities with other parts of our national research enterprise, including the federally-funded National Laboratories." They also want the report to look at the "difficulties faced by medical schools and medical centers."

Academies' spokesperson William Kearney says that the three presidents "are pleased with the letter and will be meeting this summer to discuss how best to carry out the study." But don't look for a reprise by the chair of the RAGS report, Norman Augustine. At the request of the White House, the former chair of Lockheed Martin is heading up a panel reviewing the future of NASA.