I’ve written about the difficult challenges that America’s public research universities are facing before, here and here. Tyler Cowen and I began a conversation over lunch last week that extended to email about what’s really going on with this phenomenon. His viewpoint (and Tyler jump in if I’ve got you wrong on this) is that the growth of income inequality combined with the hollowing out of the middle class has seriously eroded the potential tuition base for these institutions. I agreed, noting that the explosive growth in these flagship publics coincided with the GI Bill and the growth of the middle class following the Second World War.
What’s odd is that the conventional wisdom on this matter is quite different: that the enormous growth in federal R&D (Vannevar Bush’s legacy) fueled the golden age following the War. This viewpoint holds that the economic engine for the public research institutions was embodied in the growth of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation as they created first “Individual-PI science” and second big program science (like the polar programs and the big telescopes).
What is certainly true for the flagships is they are being squeezed from both ends–their tuition base is eroding while the Federal R&D bonanza has gone into a slow macro-decline. Add to that, the race to the bottom in state support and the student debt crisis and you have a recipe for bad times ahead.
So what to do?
I think many research publics are looking for their IP portfolios to save them (as in the Wisconsin WARF model), but the recent revisions to US patent law are creating challenges for patent defensive maneuvers. In any case, such strategies present real public relations difficulties for universities.
Others that are land-rich (as UC Irvine was in the 1960’s) may rightly attempt to generate long term new revenue streams from real estate. Stanford’s famous shopping center was an early successful example of this strategy.
Or…the public flagships may simply slowly decline, ceding the cutting-edge research space to the privates like Harvard, Stanford and Caltech, while they lower tuition to $10K/year and use MOOCS to reach out ever more to new pools of students. This may indeed happen (first in Texas). I hope it doesn’t. To me the integral linkage between research and teaching is absolutely central to national competitiveness.
So let’s find some creative ways to save the public research universities and implement them quickly.
They are beginning to manifest themselves in seemingly small ways. Today, we see new rules on using NIH grants to support faculty salaries. For those readers with a Chronicle subscription see here. For those, without access, the bottom line is that there will be a salary cap of $179,700 for NIH grants used to support faculty…potentially a huge problem, especially at academic medical centers where faculty researchers may also be seeing patients.
My prediction: we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of this kind of stuff coming down the pike.
The following exercise might be useful for those interested in what may ahead, especially as far as Federal R&D: what agency portfolios might both the House GOP and the White House agree upon? My bet is that it’s a very sparse matrix, but not empty either.
Four long stories above Massachusetts Ave NW, on embassy row, this is the Writers Room of the Cosmos Club. It’s probably my favorite place to get work done outside of my office. Today I’m catching up on an array of paperwork after finishing the NSF panel yesterday before a lunch with one of the EU science attaches here in the Garden dining room.
What strikes me most about DC these days is the sense of collective denial about the sheer size of the cuts (most likely of federal discretionary spending) that will either be imposed by the Congressional Super Committee, or, alternatively, sequestered automatically.
Running an Institute, with a large sponsored research budget, my strategic thinking has turned towards how to position Krasnow to both survive such cuts and even to thrive. My worry is that a lot of my colleagues in similar positions just aren’t thinking about this issue.
The larger questions are first: who will be supporting basic and translational science going forward, and second: how will that happen?
There are a second level of questions which center on Federal R&D:
–Which agency portfolio’s are likely to emerge relatively unscathed?
–Will there be a “despair” effect, whereby mid-ranked scientists throw in the towel, to the advantage of the very best?
Finally, how can we create new novel mechanisms for supporting international collaborations?