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NRC Report Recommends Actions for Continued Research Prosperity

June 15, 2012

The National Research Council (NRC) has issued a report containing 10 recommendations to help research universities maintain the high level of education and research needed to fuel American success in health, energy, security, and communication. The National Research Council—the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine—issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security as a follow-up to its 2007 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

The recent flattening of or declines in federal and state funding prompted the NRC to urge the government's return to pre-economic crisis levels of funding so research universities can remain competitive internationally. Citing the financial vulnerability of public institutions, the report argues that, without increased state funding, these institutions will not be able to compete with burgeoning economies driven by innovation and discovery. Also, the council recommends that the federal government cover full direct and indirect costs of research it procures to avoid shifting the burden to universities.

Specifically, the report:
  • Calls for coordination between federal and state governments, industry, philanthropic organizations, and universities to ensure research and development spending represents at least 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is comparable to Japanese and South Korean science funding. Current U.S. R&D spending ranges from 2.5 to 2.8 percent of GDP.
  • Recommends that state governments give public institutions greater autonomy so that annual budget fluctuations do not impede research, especially as states grapple with restoring funding to the level of the early 2000s.
  • Recommends the federal government fund endowed chairs and cyberinfrastructure at $7 million per year for the next decade, if universities obtain matching grants from other stakeholders. Similarly, the NRC calls for continued R&D tax credits for businesses to foster industry investment in university research and collaboration across sectors.
  • Suggests that by increasing efficiency, and thus the return on investment for stakeholders, universities will encourage continued investment. Additionally, institutions will be able to reallocate resources and shift cost savings to students, maintaining accessibility to higher education and improving the pipeline to research careers. Cost increases should be kept to the inflation rate or less. The report continues to recommend reduced regulatory burdens to increase the efficiency of research funding.

The remaining recommendations concern reforming graduate education to reduce time-to-degree and lead more directly to industry jobs, improving K-12 education to prepare students for STEM careers, and reducing the restrictions on foreign students and scholars. Fluctuating endowments, universities' shift in resources toward financial aid in response to increased student need, the increased share of research costs burdening institutions, and reduced state financing have all led to decreased faculty salaries and sizes, increased student-to-faculty ratios, and decreased expenditures per student. According to  research conducted by Dr. Ron Ehrenberg, a member of the NRC, these metrics yield lower completion rates among students and higher student attrition.

The NRC urges federal and state governments, industry, philanthropic organizations, and universities to reaffirm their commitment to advancement in the sciences through continued cooperation, increased efficiency and efficacy in policies, and an improved pipeline to careers in research and industry. Committing to these recommendations will help improve the positioning of American research institutions to compete in the global, knowledge-driven economy.