University Research: America’s Best Stimulus
Seatbelts. Global Positioning Systems. Laser cataract surgery. Doppler radar. Cable TV.
Just a few familiar inventions — and just a few of the many discoveries that resulted from research conducted at universities.
Health care, communication, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, energy, the environment: none would be the same without academic research. Consider the polio vaccine (thanks to City College alumnus Jonas Salk), insulin, the electron microscope, ultrasound, pacemakers, MRIs, computers, the Internet, search engines, traffic management, dog vaccines, rocket fuel, and cancer therapy, to name a few.
Academic research depends on highly educated faculty with the facilities, support, and time to pursue ideas, skilled students and postdoctoral researchers, government support for such inquiry and its translation to commercialization, and businesses and investors willing to take a risk to bring new ideas to market.
Government support is critical. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, enabling the development of public universities, and Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences. During World War II, government-funded university research developed radar, medical drugs, and atomic weapons. Post-Sputnik, Washington pumped money into research. In the 1980s, the Bayh-Dole Act allowed federal grant recipients to benefit by commercializing the products of their research.
That federal investment has paid off handsomely. Research universities are engines of prosperity, generating economic growth, jobs, and the services and tools that companies need. Public institutions educate almost 80 percent of U.S. students, at a time when college enrollment is at an all-time high.
Yet between 1987 and 2006, the average share of public universities’ operating revenues from state sources dropped from 57 percent to less than 41 percent. Meanwhile, other countries are eagerly investing in higher education, particularly in sciences, technology, engineering and math. Take engineering — the choice of 20 percent of students in Asia, 13 percent in Europe, but just 4 percent in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. From 1995 to 2005, published articles in science and engineering grew by over 16 percent in China — and by just 0.6 percent in the United States.
When research productivity slows, when science and engineering graduation rates lag, our country’s innovation slumps, too. The scientific leadership that has for so long fueled the nation’s growth is at risk.
President Lincoln recognized that the future depends on an educated citizenry. Yet today, 200 years after his birth, the United States is the only one of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than its 55- to 64-year-olds.
Today, more than ever, our country must encourage advanced learning and advanced research. Robust government support of public universities like CUNY is critical to maintaining a partnership that has fostered the nation’s innovation and improved its quality of life. It is truly an investment in our future. #
Matthew Goldstein is chancellor of The City University of New York.