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A scientific laboratory, featuring a microscope in the foreground and lots of glassware in the background.

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The recent Supreme Court rulings in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases have renewed national conversations about equitable access to education. But these two court cases were not about access to education in general: they were instead about access to a small set of relatively rich institutions, institutions that receive the lion’s share of federal research dollars. Interest in those universities is high because they are believed to better prepare students for the future. To the extent that this is true, it shouldn’t be a surprise, for we as a nation have chosen to directly invest more heavily in those institutions than in thousands of other universities across the country.

It is undeniable that our current system of funding universities is inherently unequal. Of the approximately 900 U.S. colleges and universities that have annual research and development expenditures of $150,000 or more, 24 presently have research and development expenditures over $1 billion per year, and another 31 more than $500 million per year. At the same time, 566 have less than $10 million in R&D expenditures annually. Federal funds account for the majority of this R&D spending.

Over time, those institutions at the top of this list have created infrastructure (facilities and equipment, grant-management support, faculty mentoring, logistical advice, etc.) that further increases their odds of future success in federal grant competitions, while those at the bottom struggle to even participate in the research enterprise.

It’s easy to see the wisdom in creating large, efficient centers of research excellence; such centers have served us well and have provided solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. But a strategy of encouraging a relatively small set of these centers has effects that are not all noble. When Vannevar Bush lobbied for the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1945, he argued that the U.S. should embed its research program within the nation’s universities to draw upon the talent and innovation of students and young scientists. He was also concerned with ensuring broad access to the research enterprise. He wrote,

There are talented individuals in every segment of the population, but with few exceptions those without the means of buying higher education go without it. Here is a tremendous waste of the greatest resource of the nation—the intelligence of its citizens.

We are doing a better job of providing access than we did in 1945, but we have far to go before a majority of our students have access to the broad research enterprise of the country. This is important because simply acquiring information is not enough. Universities must also provide students with the tools and inspiration to envision and create a better future for America and the world. Classwork can only go so far in providing the tools and inspiration. Being part of the discovery process itself is much more effective at creating the innovative leaders of tomorrow.

While all of our students take courses, only those at major research universities have the opportunity to work in cutting-edge facilities using the latest technology, while millions of students at most other institutions don’t get that chance. Those students never see an MRI, a scientific clean room, a scanning electron microscope, etc., and may never even meet someone who has used one. Clearly, their education is not as rich as what their counterparts at the better-resourced universities receive.

Providing the best education to the broadest set of students is not simply about giving them a better personal future, it is also about giving America a better future. In a very selfish sense, it’s in our collective best interest for all children to receive the very best education. Alexander M. Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova and John Van Reenen coined the term “Lost Einsteins” to denote the untold numbers of potential geniuses who simply never received an adequate education. The insights that these students may have provided and the inventions they may have created are now lost to humanity for all time, and we are all the lesser for it. Just think how different the world would be if Albert Einstein had been born in a third-world country and never had the chance to go to school. Our entire understanding of the universe would be fundamentally different. Making sure America doesn’t miss a future Einstein is good for the world and good for American competitiveness.

Many federal agencies have programs to help address equity. Notably, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense and Energy all have EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), designed to bolster research in states that lag the national average in research funding. While these and other like programs are beneficial, their impact is limited. For example, the NSF EPSCoR program distributes about $255 million across 25 states and three territories, a modest investment when compared to the total NSF budget of $9.9 billion.

To move the entire nation ahead, we must reconsider our systems for allocating research dollars with an eye toward greater equity across institutions. I am not recommending that we simply take our nation’s research funds and spread them like peanut butter across all institutions, but instead we seek an investment strategy that considers both our access and research goals. For example, we might consider a model that encourages partnerships between established research centers and those universities with fewer resources and infrastructure. The potential for this model is suggested by the CHIPS and Science Act, which creates a five-year pilot program that encourages multi-institutional partnerships that include “emerging research institutions.”

Such partnerships would likely be among neighboring institutions but could also be among those with other connections or shared interests across the country. Inter-institutional partnerships would have obvious benefits for the faculty and students at the up-and-coming colleges and universities, but the established institutions would also benefit from the infusion of talent from their new partners.

In addition, creating a culture of research partnerships would likely engender greater political and public support for our research programs and funding. Members of Congress tend to be supportive of investments in their home districts, so as we create a network of institutional research partners, more and more members will see research investments in their own districts and will likely be supportive of continuing and expanding those investments.

The United States should be justifiably proud of the research enterprise that we have created. Indeed, it is the envy of the world. But we can always do better. Ensuring that research enterprise is truly a national enterprise is the logical next step in our nation’s research programs.

Kim A. Wilcox has been chancellor at University of California, Riverside, since 2013.

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