Explaining U.S. Research Slide

Paper attributes comparative drop in American university productivity internationally to decline in financial support for public universities.
August 18, 2009

A large part of the much-ballyhooed decline in the international standing of American higher education can be attributed to the fact that other countries have finally gotten more serious about pursuing excellence in and expanding access to their postsecondary systems -- which is not exactly a sign of U.S. failure.

But a paper published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds one measure of U.S. research prowess that is actually dipping -- and attributes that decline to a larger issue that has gotten significant attention of late: the growing disadvantage of public universities against their private counterparts.

The paper, "Is the U.S. Losing Its Preeminence in Higher Education?" (which is available for purchase from NBER), acknowledges that the closing of the gap in research productivity between the U.S. and other countries that intensified in the 1980s has resulted to a significant degree from the expansion of research in Europe and especially East Asia. But it also identifies a slowdown in research output in the United States beginning in the 1990s -- a slowdown that is largely attributable, writes the author James D. Adams, to public universities.

Adams, a professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, runs a series of regression analyses showing that the process by which public and private research universities produce scientific papers is similar, driven by increases in research and development, graduate students, tuition revenues and endowment. "In view of this broad similarity, a divergence in research output over time, in which public universities fall behind, can only be accounted for by a lower rate of increase in public university resources," Adams writes.

Compensation for researchers, for example, rose 1 percent faster a year at private universities than public ones throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the study finds, suggesting "reasons for top scientists to migrate from public to private universities."

And while the rapid expansion of federal research funding benefited public institutions even more than private universities during this time, Adams finds, state obligations to cover Medicaid costs and equalize public school spending, among other demands, meant that "growth of mostly federal research dollars is canceled out by the slower growth of state dollars in public universities."

If this decline in support for public research institutions was temporary, Adams writes, "the downward fluctuations of finances of public universities ... would be compensated by upward fluctuations at a later time, leaving public institutions on the same unaltered trend line with little to be concerned about in the long run." But if it persists, and alternative sources of funds such as increased tuitions and increased commercialization of research prove to be difficult to sustain, public universities are likely to remain behind the curve.

And if that happens, and the "relatively faster growth of universities in newly industrializing countries" continues, as is likely, "the decline in the U.S. share of world science will likely persist."


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