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Karen Hitchcock: The Need to Communicate the Crisis Looming For Our Nation’s Research Enterprise

In a recent commentary, I raised the question of whether the United States is losing its global competitiveness in the area of scientific research. And yet, despite the fact that major reductions have been made in our research infrastructure and productivity due to cuts arising from sequestration and over a decade of federal research budgets which have not exceeded inflation, I was startled to learn that “only 38% of Americans feel science [research] is getting too little funding” (reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Strapped,” February 28, 2014). Why isn’t the message getting out? Why do so few Americans see the risk in falling behind in areas of research critical to understanding disease processes, to addressing environmental issues, to developing alternative energy, and on and on?

One of the major reasons for this disconnect of our citizens with the need for adequate support of research is the very structure of this nation’s research enterprise. As opposed to a number of other countries, the bulk of the scientific research going on in the United States is carried out at our nation’s universities, a model developed in Germany and adopted by the U.S. with the establishment of Johns Hopkins University in the late 1800s.  In an excellent review article recently published (April 28, 2014) in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nicholas LeMann describes some of the perceptual problems associated with this model. In short, most higher education stakeholders view universities, to quote Mr. LeMann,  as “… skills-conferring, teaching-centric institutions.” Be they parents, alumni or legislators, these stakeholders understand the educational role played by universities, but they do not, by and large, understand that research is a critical, indeed, core mission of such institutions. To again quote Mr. LeMann, “Tens of millions of Americans have a direct connection to higher education, and probably only a tiny minority of them are even familiar with the term, ‘research university’.”  However, what do we expect when we who are university leaders do not adequately explain the role of our universities in research when addressing public forums about our institutions. We certainly speak a lot about the university as an educational institution since we know that our stakeholders are aware of and sympathetic to this role of our institutions, but we say relatively little about our universities’ role in our nation’s research enterprise.  Indeed, Mr. LeMann contends that by such relative silence “… universities themselves have contributed to the lack of public understanding of the centrality of research.”

This lack of public awareness clearly must be addressed if we are to expect scientific research to be prioritized in federal budget discussions. And, in this context, I want to applaud our own Albany-Colonie Chamber of Commerce which, along with some 48 other Chambers across the country, recently provided Testimony for the Record to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations  in support of increased funding for research. Such “third party” advocacy is critical, and our universities need to reinforce it and add to it at every opportunity they have to tell this important story to the public.

And, as we become more articulate spokespeople for the research mission of our universities, we also need to defend the need for what is known as fundamental research, research whose goal is to develop a better understanding of our world without any short-term, practical goal.  A recent (February 14, 2014) article in The Chronicle entitled “The Global Battle for Pure Research” addresses this issue and describes the risks of a trend now seen in many countries to increase funding for research which appears to have the most immediate impact. One person put it this way: “What worries me is this slot-machine mentality. You put a [research project] in, and three years later a patent comes out. That’s not how scientific research works.”  Scientists from around the world are concerned that their governments and policy makers are too concerned with immediate “payback” from the research they are funding, rather than being willing to fund research that examines fundamental processes and new understandings which, in the long run, will lead to a richer array of practical solutions and innovative new approaches. A recent policy statement issued by a number of university associations from a number of countries put it this way: “Universities around the world risk losing their effectiveness if the national and global policy environments continue to focus on the immediate rather than the long term, on the knowns rather than the unknowns, and on the narrow rather than the broad.”  The article reports that “many [academics world-wide] agree that a proper balance can [and, I would add, should] be struck between research that has an immediate benefit to the economy and research that opens the door for future discoveries.” Indeed, this was the very premise upon which we established the nanotechnology  initiatives at the University at Albany, and it is an approach which is at the heart of their success.

It is up to all of us in higher education to become more effective spokespeople for the research which defines many of our nation’s universities: research, both fundamental and applied; research which both furthers our understanding of the world and research which has more practical and immediate impact. Both types of research are critical to our nation’s competitiveness and the welfare of its citizens. Both types of research need to be supported and celebrated.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.


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