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NRC calls for investment in US research universities

US research universities, on which the country’s future depends, are facing serious challenges that demand action, warns a report issued by the US National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC).

Difficulties confronting research institutions, the nation’s primary source of new knowledge and graduates with advanced skills, include unstable revenue streams and increasing competition from universities abroad, the NRC committee said.

The 14 June report noted that US federal spending on university research has been unsteady and declining in real terms at a time when other countries have increased research and development funding.

In addition, the committee pointed out that state funding for higher education has been eroding in real terms for more than two decades and has been cut further during the recession. At the same time, private industry has largely dismantled the big corporate research laboratories that drove US industrial leadership in the 20th century.

Among the report’s 10 recommendations is a proposal for a systematic increase in federal government funding for critical basic research programmes. The government is also urged to ease burdensome and inefficient policies on university research and graduate education—such as research cost reimbursement and a lack of coordination among federal science agencies.

The report urges states to restore their appropriations for higher education, including graduate education and research.

“State cuts in appropriations to public research universities over the years 2002 to 2010 are estimated to average 25 per cent, ranging as high as 50 per cent for some universities—resulting in the need for institutions to increase tuition or to reduce either activities or quality,” said the NRC panel.

The report calls for universities to increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity in order to provide a greater return on investment for taxpayers and other research sponsors, and for US immigration policies to be enhanced and simplified for international students and scholars who wish to study or conduct research in the US.

For example, it recommends that the US consider granting a green card to each foreigner who earns a doctorate in an area of national need from an accredited research university.

“The situation is changing,” said Paul Chu, the former president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who served on the NRC committee that drafted the report. At an event to release the report, Chu—currently a physics professor at the University of Houston—recounted how he had visited colleagues who are programme officers at the Department of Energy in Washington, DC the previous day, and was initially denied access because he was born outside the country, even though he is a US citizen.

Chu, a recipient of the National Medal of Science and the International Prize for New Materials, commented, “In homeland security, we have to keep a balance.”