Why scientific research is suffering in higher ed

Private industry should have a stake in academic research, authors say

Federal funding cuts are restricting academic institutions’ ability to maintain high-quality research, Claudia Neuhauser and Brian Herman write for The Conversation. 

Neuhauser and Herman, of the University of Minnesota, note that over the past half-century, federal funding for research and development has declined in the United States. That decrease has hit academia particularly hard, as half of all basic research is produced within the academic community. Data show that two-thirds of the fundamental contributions to diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease are borne out of basic research.

"But in a tough funding climate, there are increasing external pressures to focus on research that provides quick rewards at the expense of the search for essential, basic knowledge that has a much longer lead time before any economic impact," Neuhauser and Herman write.

Internal funds at colleges and universities can go only so far toward creating research opportunities. And top research universities are fighting for a limited pool of external resources, with the following tier of institutions left with an even smaller share.

Scientists are struggling to produce high-quality research in the face of dwindling funding, but it's tough to focus on what matters: A survey from the National Academies found that faculty spend more than 40% of their time trying to obtain funding as opposed to conducting actual research.

Universities also lose sight of their values when they invest only in research that is the most profitable, the authors argue.

"A laser-like focus on a handful of research programs ignores much of the broader societal expectations for higher education–particularly for our public universities," they write.

Fostering a culture of research

Institutions could relieve some financial strain by sharing resources. However, the authors believe that a "bolder solution" proposed by Harvard University economist Michael Porter could be more beneficial. Porter, they write, supports the "shared value" model. For research and development, this would entail "providing incentive for businesses to invest more resources in higher education [research and development] to tap into what research universities do best: arriving at innovative solutions that are then transferred to industry for scaling up and turning into economic value."

While conflicts of interest must be taken into account, "The promise of business placing a value on solving societal grand challenges in partnership with higher education would represent a strong alliance, leading to a reinvigoration of the creation of new knowledge that simultaneously serves the needs of society and business," Herman and Neuhauser conclude (Herman/Neuhauser, The Conversation, 10/12).

Learn how the University Research Forum can help you align long-term planning with research funding realities

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