WASHINGTON -- The leaders of American research universities may be well-advised to shift some of their energy away from lobbying Congress and focus more on partnerships with state governments and businesses, several higher education leaders said Thursday.
Research universities need more funding to remain competitive, they said, but given the political dysfunction in Washington it may be time to look outside of the federal government for support.
Leaders of research universities gathered here at an event sponsored by the National Academies to take stock of how the group’s wide-ranging report  released last year had been received across the country and to identify priorities for carrying out its recommendations. The report, produced by the National Research Council, the policy arm of the National Academies, offered 10 broad suggestions for how research universities can remain competitive in the world.
Among the recommendations included in the report were calls for greater commitments from state and federal governments, better partnerships with the business community, and more efficiency and innovation at institutions themselves.
Thursday’s meeting came as the research community continues to feel the impact  of a partial shutdown of the federal government. The inability of Congress to fund the government starting October 1 has halted new funding of research and, in some cases, stopped work on existing grants that require federal resources to continue. Highlighting the impact of the shutdown, two scheduled speakers from the government -- a White House science policy adviser and the U.S. energy secretary -- were forced to cancel their appearances at the event because of the lapse in funding.
Research universities are also still reeling  from automatic federal spending cuts that slashed billions in funding earlier this year and have prompted layoffs at some institutions. Those spending cuts, known as the sequester, would be continued in all of the short-term funding proposals Congress is currently debating.
And further jeopardizing federal research funding is next Thursday’s deadline for Congress to either raise the nation’s borrowing authority or cause the government to start missing payments on its obligations. It’s not clear how the Treasury Department would manage such an unprecedented default or the extent to which it would prioritize the nation’s bills. But, higher education observers say, payments on federal research funding and student aid would probably take a back seat to U.S. bondholders and recipients of Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits.
Against the backdrop of this dismal federal outlook for scientific research, Hunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, told his colleagues Thursday that it was time to start looking away from Congress and toward state governments and business leaders to make investments in research.
“The federal government is stuck in the mud and it’s not going to get out for some time,” Rawlings said. Beyond the fiscal crises of the past several months, he said that Congress for years has shown “willful disregard” for the warnings from academics and business leaders about the need for more investment in research.
“My confidence in our advocacy is waning” at the federal level, Rawlings added. Although the leaders of research institutions should continue pressing Congress for more support, they should now focus their energy into building partnerships with state governments and businesses.
Rawlings said that after nearly a decade of cuts in funding to public higher education and research, the funding landscape in state legislatures was improving modestly. During this fiscal year, he said, 37 states boosted funding for public colleges, with a sizable share of those increases going towards research. He cited the example of New York City’s investment in a new technology campus  for Cornell University and the governor of Connecticut’s plan  to dedicate $1.5 billion to growing the science, technology, engineering, and math programs at the state’s university system.
The suggestion that states and the business community may be better allies for research universities than the federal government represents a sharp turnaround from how many higher education leaders were viewing the political landscape just several years ago. In 2011, several public university leaders, citing declining state support of their institutions, suggested  that the federal government take on a more prominent role in funding research institutions, even to the point of providing basic operating support. That proposal struck some as far-fetched at the time, but given the austerity and instability of federal funding today, it seems even more implausible today.
Other higher education leaders Thursday spoke about the need for research institutions to do some self-reflection as well and strive to make themselves more productive and efficient.
“This is not just a matter of universities saying, ‘Well, just give us money, return to the good old days,' ” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “Certainly, that needs to be done, but universities have an important role to play, too.”
McPherson said, for example, that research universities should consider borrowing the tools and models from well-run hospitals, which share a similar mission of reducing costs while increasing the quality of outputs.
Although there was an overarching emphasis on turning to state and business partners, research leaders still said they saw an important role in lobbying the federal government for resources. But such an approach ought to be targeted and carefully articulated to make clear links between research and themes that resonate with policymaker, such as national security or economic growth.
“This is probably not the right time to go to the federal government with a new agenda full of initiatives,” said Lee T. Todd Jr., the former president of the University of Kentucky. However, Todd added, that the research community may find success by promoting “outcomes-based research that address national needs.”
Another recommendation at the federal on which research leaders said they could move quickly and receive bipartisan support in Congress was to analyze and explore ways to reduce regulatory burdens on research institutions who receive federal research money.