How to Keep U.S. Research and Tech Competitive
A new report lists what universities, the government, private businesses and other institutions need to do to maintain U.S. universities' competitiveness and drive innovation in the U.S.
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More funding for science, more independence and more graduate programs that science and technology companies have said they want are among the top 10 things U.S. universities need to stay competitive in the decades to come, according to a new report.
According to the report, published June 14, U.S. universities are in danger of slipping in quality, threatening America's high-tech economy and quality of living. The 10-point plan came after a request for a checkup on universities by four members of Congress in 2009.
The new report, prepared by the nonpartisan National Research Council, stressed the importance of keeping money in research and development, but also included suggestions for what to do while state budgets are unable fund schools like they did 10 years ago. Maintaining universities will create more high-paying jobs, increase middle-class incomes and improve the nation's health and security, the report said.
"Especially in these tough economic times, the nation cannot afford to defer investment in our best asset for building prosperity and success in the future," the report committee's chairman, Charles O. Holliday Jr., said in a statement. Holliday was formerly CEO of the chemical company DuPont.
The committee's first recommendations tackled funding. The U.S. is beginning to lag behind other countries in the proportion of its budget used for research, the report said. Japan devotes 3.4 percent of its national budget to research, while South Korea sets aside 3.5 percent. On the other hand, the U.S. generally allocates 2.5 percent to 2.8 percent of its budget to R&D.
The America Competes Act, which promised to double funding for physical science and engineering research, should not be allowed to languish for lack of funding, the report said.
Committee members also wanted states to kick in new funds to their universities as soon as their economies recovered. On average, the research universities nationwide have lost 25 percent of their state funding, while some schools have lost as much as half their state support, the committee reported. The National Research Council recommended states spend as much per public university student as they spent, on average, in the years between 1987 and 2002, adjusting for inflation.
At the same time, committee members acknowledged that universities probably weren't going to get that funding back soon, so they recommended that states loosen regulations so that universities have the freedom to find their own solutions to budget constraints. This recommendation fit in with another proposal that schools get tough on their own budgets and review programs for quality and cost effectiveness.
Schools should cut costs by using more online learning tools and by sharing equipment and labs with each other, the report said. They can then pass their savings onto students, or use the freed-up funds to improve Internet infrastructure, which would help schools run more efficiently and help academic scientists with their research.
Besides money, another major theme of the report was bringing in all the players who might benefit from cooperating with, or attending, a publicly funded research university.
Private businesses should work more closely with universities to bring new innovations to market, the National Research Council members wrote. The report recommended tax incentives for businesses to cooperate with academics. It also said science-based businesses and schools should work together to create programs that will graduate masters' and doctoral students with the science skills businesses need.
In its last two recommendations, the report looked to creating a more diverse high-tech future. Universities, federal and state governments, school districts and businesses should work to interest girls and minorities in science and engineering before college, so more will choose science majors after high school, the report said. Committee members said they supported existing programs in the America Competes Act and from the White House to interest underrepresented children in high-tech careers.
Committee members also wanted national policies that make it easier for international students to earn degrees and perform research in the U.S. They suggested that non-U.S. citizens who earn a doctorate in an "area of national need," such as alternative energy or cybersecurity, receive residency in the U.S. [Backdoor Diplomacy: How U.S. Scientists Reach Out to Frenemies]
The committee that worked on the report included university professors, national laboratory researchers and people from science-driven companies, including Holliday and a former executive at Accenture. The report is a follow-up on a National Research Council study about how to drive innovation in the U.S., which was published in 2007 and inspired the America Competes Act.
In the past, strong support for U.S. universities drove the development of radar, penicillin, the computer and the atomic bomb, while making the U.S. a world leader, council members wrote. As the world transitions to a tech-driven economy, the U.S. needs continued investment in universities to prepare its citizens for the future, they said.