Harvard’s Drew Faust on higher ed (8 min) and my own thoughts on Federal R&D investments in science…


I draw your attention to her concerns about the effect of the sequester on research. This is a key point. There has been a de facto partnership between the US government and America’s universities since the end of the Second World War. This partnership, initially put forward by FDR’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush in his essay, Science the Endless Frontier envisioned those Federal R&D investments serving as an engine to the US economy and a protector of the public health.  Central to the notion was the idea that Federal R&D investment in basic and applied science, channeled through America’s Universities would keep America strong and competitive. That notion has been empirically borne out over the years and is one of the reasons why the best of American Higher Ed remains in its leadership position, even under increasing global competition.
The effect of the Sequester has been to put that partnership at risk. I first got wind of what was happening on the ground this past summer when one of my colleagues at another institution told me how previously committed grant funds were being essentially rescinded after the fact. I was skeptical because my own years in government on the other side of the equation had taught me that such a state of affairs was not possible with the obvious exceptions of malfeasance. These were funds where the work had already been done (yes the US government often but not always pays after rather than before the science has been conducted).
We are now beginning to see more of this pattern. The problem is the Sequester itself, which acts as a blunt axe on all federal accounts, rather than allowing for intelligent cuts. The sequester was designed as a ‘suicide pact’ (between Congress and the White House) rather than an actual policy for how to reduce the federal deficit. The effect of that pact is now being felt across the US science waterfront–programs are being interrupted or ended willy nilly leaving young scientists unemployed, high ed institutions holding the bag and our best scientists increasingly looking towards more stable funding environments overseas.
It is now very important for Congress and the White House to move rapidly to end the Sequester and to replace it with a system of smart federal spending reductions that are both rational and adaptable. Given the uproar over the Affordable Care Act and the poll numbers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I’m not optimistic. But it’s terribly important.

Publics in distress redux…

I’ve written about the difficult challenges that America’s public research universities are facing before, here and here. Tyler Cowen and I began a conversation over lunch last week that extended to email about what’s really going on with this phenomenon. His viewpoint (and Tyler jump in if I’ve got you wrong on this) is that the growth of income inequality combined with the hollowing out of the middle class has seriously eroded the potential tuition base for these institutions. I agreed, noting that the explosive growth in these flagship publics coincided with the GI Bill and the growth of the middle class following  the Second World War.

What’s odd is that the conventional wisdom on this matter is quite different: that the enormous growth in federal R&D (Vannevar Bush’s legacy) fueled the golden age following the War. This viewpoint holds that the economic engine for the public research institutions was embodied in the growth of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation as they created first “Individual-PI science” and second big program science (like the polar programs and the big telescopes).

What is certainly true for the flagships is they are being squeezed from both ends–their tuition base is eroding while the Federal R&D bonanza has gone into a slow macro-decline. Add to that, the race to the bottom in state support and the student debt crisis and you have a recipe for bad times ahead.

So what to do?

I think many research publics are looking for their IP portfolios to save them (as in the Wisconsin WARF model), but the recent revisions to US patent law are creating challenges for patent defensive maneuvers. In any case, such strategies present real public relations difficulties for universities.

Others that are land-rich (as UC Irvine was in the 1960’s) may rightly attempt to generate long term new revenue streams from real estate. Stanford’s famous shopping center was an early successful example of this strategy.

Or…the public flagships may simply slowly decline, ceding the cutting-edge research space to the privates like Harvard, Stanford and Caltech, while they lower tuition to $10K/year and use MOOCS to reach out ever more to new pools of students. This may indeed happen (first in Texas). I hope it doesn’t. To me the integral linkage between research and teaching is absolutely central to national competitiveness.

So let’s find some creative ways to save the public research universities and implement them quickly.

Macro changes in the Federal R&D funding world…

They are beginning to manifest themselves in seemingly small ways. Today, we see new rules on using NIH grants to support faculty salaries. For those readers with a Chronicle subscription see here. For those, without access, the bottom line is that there will be a salary cap of $179,700 for NIH grants used to support faculty…potentially a huge problem, especially at academic medical centers where faculty researchers may also be seeing patients.

My prediction: we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of this kind of stuff coming down the pike.

A room with a view

Four long stories above Massachusetts Ave NW, on embassy row,  this is the Writers Room of the Cosmos Club. It’s probably my favorite place to get work done outside of my office.  Today I’m catching up on an array of paperwork after finishing the NSF panel yesterday before a lunch with one of the EU science attaches here in the Garden dining room.

What strikes me most about DC these days is the sense of collective denial about the sheer size of the cuts (most likely of federal discretionary spending) that will either be imposed by the Congressional Super Committee, or, alternatively, sequestered automatically.

Running an Institute, with a large sponsored research budget, my strategic thinking has turned towards how to position Krasnow to both survive such cuts and even to thrive. My worry is that a lot of my colleagues in similar positions just aren’t thinking about this issue.

The larger questions are first: who will be supporting basic and translational science going forward, and second: how will that happen?

There are a second level of questions which center on Federal R&D:

–Which agency portfolio’s are likely to emerge relatively unscathed?

–Will there be a “despair” effect, whereby mid-ranked scientists throw in the towel, to the advantage of the very best?

Finally, how can we create new novel mechanisms for supporting international collaborations?