‘Research Universities and the Public Good’

Author discusses his new book defending research universities in an environment where their value is questioned by politicians and pundits.

November 20, 2018

American research universities are the envy of those around the world. So why is the value of these institutions so frequently questioned by politicians, pundits and others? In Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press), Jason Owen-Smith offers a defense of these institutions, while acknowledging that they are not always well understood. Owen-Smith, a professor of sociology and executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science at the University of Michigan, answered questions via email about his new book.

Q: To many in academe, it would seem obvious that research universities promote the public good. Why did you think it necessary to make the case in this way?

A: We may think the idea is so obvious that we don’t bother to make the case as clearly and rigorously as we should. I wrote this book to show how research universities look to someone like me. Their value is obvious and it needs to be explained.

The last decade was not good for higher education. A recent Pew survey found that 58 percent of Republican-identified respondents believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the direction of the country. States continued, and often accelerated, divestment from public universities. Increasing tuition and concerns about student debt raise questions about the sustainability of our enterprise. Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education is rolling back Obama-era protections for students. President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposed cuts to federal research funding that would have taken us back to pre-recession levels and imposed a dramatic cap on indirect cost recovery rates.

A new Congress may mean things are looking up, but I remain concerned. Partisan disagreement about the value of universities is dangerous in a polarized political climate. Our dominant language for talking about the value of universities and their work is ill suited to seeing and sustaining their most important purposes. Being sanguine about our contributions to the public good is a loser’s game, especially now.

Q: Much of the political support for university research tends to focus on science with short-term impact (applied research). Why are broad research universities, with programs in a range of disciplines, and support for basic research, important?

A: Consider Google, which I discuss early in the book. Their search technology, PageRank, was invented by Larry Page when he was a graduate student working on a grant the National Science Foundation made to Stanford in 1994. Stanford patented PageRank. Google was founded in 1999 and went public in 2004. Today it is worth more than $1 trillion. You could read Google as exhibit A for short-term, innovation-oriented investments in research. But to understand the challenge that poses, you need three more facts.

First, that 1994 grant was not the first NSF investment essential to PageRank. The earliest NSF grant that supported immediately relevant research funded a sociology project at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1974.

Second, the Stanford project didn’t target the World Wide Web. It wasn’t a thing yet. The first modern web browser, Mosaic, was created at the University of Illinois in 1993. At the end of 1994, the first commercial browser, Netscape, came from a company whose founder worked on Mosaic as an undergraduate.

Third, PageRank’s economic value was far from obvious. Stanford tried to license their patent to companies including Excite and Yahoo! for what now seem like paltry sums. Contemporary market leaders passed.

If we want to support research as a means to economic growth or other good outcomes, we must confront an uncomfortable idea. Right now we probably know just as much about which research will create opportunities in 20 years as sociologists evaluating grant proposals at NSF in 1974 knew about web search. This is why basic research funding across all fields is necessary. That work happens at a very small and unique set of organizations.

About 3 percent of U.S. higher education institutions conduct nearly 90 percent of federally funded basic research. They are a unique knowledge infrastructure that helps ensure we will be ready to address an uncertain future. If we want them to serve that purpose, we need to invest in and run them in ways that support that job. Emphasizing research with clear applications we can see today is important, but doing only that denigrates our universities’ abilities to respond to the problems and opportunities we don’t yet know we have.

Q: Many pundits champion the idea of "unbundling" the various parts of the research university. Why do you think this is a bad idea?

A: Unbundling means many things: separating the research and teaching missions, disentangling parts of degree programs by emphasizing skill-based certifications, or making parts of the institution more independent and subject to market discipline. All these ideas seek to increase the university’s productive efficiency. We should make certain that student and public investments in higher education are responsibly spent to support our missions. But seeking efficiency for its own sake makes those missions more difficult.

Instead we need a research and education system that can identify and address new challenges and possibilities. I develop three metaphors to explain how research universities do this. They are sources of new knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities and industries, and hubs connecting far-flung parts of society. All these roles require stability, openness and a broad, diverse knowledge base. On-campus public goods like libraries and advanced IT make synergies across competing missions and activities possible. Unbundling activities to promote efficiency one thing at a time will make universities less fertile by limiting possibilities for collaboration on the common platform that campus public goods create. The result may be a more efficient education or a more focused applied research portfolio, but those aren’t the goals we should be striving for.

Q: How does teaching undergraduates fit into the public good of research universities?

A: Teaching undergraduates is a huge part of the public good mission of research universities. I downplay education to keep my argument tractable and because clear, sustained effort to address the research mission is needed. It has become normal to ask why faculty should be doing research at the expense of teaching. Instead, I ask why we should do extensive and diverse teaching at all levels in an institution that is also dedicated to research.

Even the easy answers to that question are challenging. Universities themselves are funding larger proportions of research. That money has to come from somewhere. On most campuses tuition and gifts are the only likely sources. The business model of the university depends on research and teaching together. This has become a shell game that puts too much of the cost of maintaining a legitimate social good on students and their families. A clear sense of what’s at stake for research in making changes to the organization and financing of teaching (and vice versa) is essential.

Students are often the means for new discoveries to leave the university and new problems to enter it. Graduate students directed a Stanford project toward web search. Netscape was founded by a student who helped produce Mosaic. Most research is also teaching. But we could do more to forge that connection.

Treating education as an irreducible component of a university’s mission helps the institutions do the work of ensuring our future. Students make the university more, better anchors and more central hubs. They help universities stand for something more than the simple technical requirements of teaching and discovery. They should be well served, but we should also recognize the role that education continues to play in the academic research enterprise.

Q: What should leaders of research universities be doing to shore up public and political support?

A: Stop ceding ground. We need to articulate a clear message about the long- and short-term public value of research universities that recognizes and defends the features of academe that serve the former even if they come at the expense of the latter. We need to invest in data and infrastructure that allow universities to turn their best science on themselves. Doing so will help us understand, explain and improve the public value of our work, but it will also help our credibility. I think that most people have little sense of what research actually is or how it works. We need to offer better explanations. This book, and the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science, which I co-founded, are efforts to do both those things. We should also focus intensely on teaching students about research. If our graduates don’t understand or see the value in what we do, our hopes for convincing others seem limited.

Talk is necessary, but it is not enough. Campus leaders should commit to data sharing and analysis of the workings of their research and education enterprises that can allow us to identify places for improvement and improve them. We must undertake disciplined experiments with new means to organize and integrate research and teaching. Campus policies and practices should emphasize openness to the greatest extent possible, whether that be in handling of intellectual property licensing, sharing information about the university and its work, or accessing the results of research. We should identify and attend to what makes universities unique and valuable, even, perhaps especially, when those sources of value are hard to explain in terms of short-term, easy-to-measure returns.


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