'Science and the University'

The importance of science to the American university extends well beyond research or teaching. As a new collection of essays demonstrates, science is central to the economics of the modern research university, the mission of universities (as seen by those who run them and politicians), and the make-up of the academic workforce.

October 24, 2007

The importance of science to the American university extends well beyond research or teaching. As a new collection of essays demonstrates, science is central to the economics of the modern research university, the mission of universities (as seen by those who run them and politicians), and the make-up of the academic workforce. The new collection -- Science and the University, from the University of Wisconsin Press -- features essays on federal research policy, foreign students, competitiveness debates and many other topics.

The editors of the volume (who are also contributors to it) are Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute and editor of What's Happening to Public Higher Education, and Paula E. Stephan, professor of economics at Georgia State University and co-editor of Economics of Science and Innovation. They responded to questions about the themes of the new book.

Q: Science research has been crucial to universities ever since World War II. What do you see as the key transformations in the current era that differ from the previous 50 or so years?

A: The key transformations include changes in the mix of funding, the focus of research and the rewards to doing science. Another key change is a continued increase in the cost of doing science which results both from increases in the cost of equipment as well as increases in the size of teams.

  • Mix of funding: The proportion of funding supported by the federal government has decreased and the areas that the federal government supports have shifted overwhelmingly to biomedical research at the expense of some of the physical sciences. The proportions of funds coming from the university and from corporations have increased (although there has been a slight fall off from corporations after 1999.) As universities invest more the incentives are there to invest in sure winners. We see this in hiring patterns in the biomedical sciences in recent years.
  • Focus: There are increased opportunities to work in what is called "Pasteur’s Quadrant" (Donald Stoke’s term) with a focus on use as well as fundamental understanding. At the same time, there is increased interest by universities in patenting and licensing results coming out of research. This interest was stimulated in part by changes in law, such as Bayh-Dole and by court decisions such as Diamond v. Chakrabarty. While universities are trying to commercialize their research findings to generate revenue to support their operations, they also understand their social responsibility and are developing strategies to assure that the products of their research findings, such as disease resistant crops and new drugs, can find their ways to the worlds’ poorest nations.
  • Rewards: Scientists increasingly have the opportunities to receive income (or wealth) by sharing royalties arising from patents, serving on scientific advisory boards, starting companies, and consulting with business. Some universities also provide incentives to scientists by sharing indirect cost revenues with them. Concern has been expressed that the reward structure may encourage applied rather than basic research although the fertile areas for research in Pasteur’s Quadrant make the distinction between basic and applied somewhat artificial and evidence suggests that patenting activity does not come at the expense of publishing. There is also the issue that increasingly, and even in some tenure-track positions, scientists are required to raise part of their salary through obtaining external grants.
  • Cost of Science: The increasing cost of science and the increasing shares of these costs that are financed by the research universities themselves leads to concern about from where the funds to finance these activities will come and who really bears the costs of these activities. Do increased university expenditures on scientific research mean fewer funds for other disciplines, less money for student aid, or higher tuition levels?

Q: Several essays in the book focus on the role of science in competitiveness. How does this change the nature of academic science? Is this emphasis healthy in an era when the economy and the work force in American universities' labs are international?

A: There is considerable evidence that science is a source of economic growth; there is also evidence that knowledge spillovers are geographically bounded. This has led governments and communities to invest in universities with the expectations that they will create more Silicon Valleys and Route 128’s. Universities have encouraged this thinking and there is an increased emphasis on funding research infrastructure at public universities as a vehicle to stimulate economic growth. For example, the news from Texas in August of 2006 was that the state had decided to invest $2.5 billion for science teaching and research in the University of Texas system. The primary focus was to build the research capacity of San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington (all cities in Texas) with the goal of turning these into the next Austin. Texas is not alone. The University of California system recently built a new campus at Merced. Many argue that a leading factor in establishing the new campus was the desire to turn the San Joaquin Valley into another Silicon Valley.

The consequences of this increased emphasis are several. It augments the competition for star scientists and the “start up” cost packages that universities are offering scientists have risen substantially. It also can create excess capacity, much like the situation where cities build sports arenas with the belief that “if we build it they will come.” Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the focus on economic development may affect the university’s ability to garner resources in the future. If universities cannot deliver the level of regional economic growth that the public anticipates, especially within the time frame that states expect, the public’s enthusiasm for supporting universities may diminish.

How healthy the strategy is depends much more on the degree to which university research can create new opportunities rather than the degree to which our research enterprise is populated by international scholars. Of course, scholars who come to the U.S. can leave and we see them leaving; but they can also continue to do research with US faculty after they leave and we see that as well. It is not at all clear that we “lose” by having foreign scientists and engineers training and working in the U.S. Where we lose is not having a population with sufficient understanding of science to imagine and implement solutions developed out of their expertise.

Q: Politicals affects academic science in numerous ways noted in the book (earmarking, Congressional interesting going hot and cold for certain agencies, increased interest in topics that reflect emerging national concerns, etc.). Scientists often talk about wanting a more rational political approach to science. Is that possible? Are there changes you would recommend?

A: Scientists need to be careful of what they wish for. This was made abundantly clear with the doubling of the NIH budget. While the doubling created many additional opportunities, it also led to a substantial increase in applications and encouraged universities to go on a building spree in the biomedical sciences. The end result was the success rates (on individual research grant applications) have declined, universities rushed to hire fundable-senior scientists and the age distribution of those who receive NIH funding has changed considerably. For example, in 1995, approximately 50 percent of awardees were 41 or older; in 1995 it was 68 percent. While the doubling will undoubtedly contribute to research and improve treatment options in the long run, one wonders if it could not have been planned with a softer landing in mind. This lesson needs to be heeded as scientists now lobby for a doubling of other budgets, such as the budget of NSF and NIST.

Q: Essays note the substantial progress at attracting more women to science at the graduate level and the more limited progress for some minority groups. How crucial to American science is the need to attract a more diverse group of American students?

A: It’s crucial for three reasons: First and foremost, our nation’s economic growth depends upon increasing the supply skilled college graduate in scientific and technical fields. As the share of the population that is white male declines, it is essential that we attract members of historically under represented groups into these fields. Second, the research of scholars from these groups is more likely to be focused on research questions that are particular relevance to their communities. There are many important research questions that have been under-addressed in our country; for example the lower-birth weights among mothers from these groups and the factors that lead to the higher incidence of prostate cancer among black males. Finally, increasing the participation of members of underrepresented groups in the science and engineering workforce and in faculty positions in American universities has the potential to attract more members of these groups into science and engineering careers in the future; role models do matter.

Q: For those concerned about academic science, what question would you recommend asking presidential candidates to measure their interest in and sensitivities to these issues?

A: 1. Questions regarding sensitivity to “balance.” It is all too common for candidates to focus either on space or on health and to ignore all the rest of the scientific enterprise. It is also important for candidates to realize that many of the discoveries that contribute to health occur in fields outside the biomedical area (witness MRI’s), that issues relating to the environment, energy and food safety are increasingly important, and that the social sciences have an important role to play in seeking to improve social welfare (but remember we are both social scientists). 2. Questions concerning issues related to encouraging the participation of foreign-born in U.S. science. Post 9/11 problems remain regarding visas and problems remain arranging for short-term visits of foreign scientists and engineers. 3. Questions concerning whether the candidate has any science literacy and/or has the ability to listen to advisors. Does the candidate understand the importance of separating scientific advisors from political influences?


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