The National Academies released Research Universities and the Future of America late last week. If you’re not keen on reading the full report, a summary is also available at the same link (they are free to most, if you just want a PDF version).
There’s a lot to digest in the document, which seeks to offer steps to accomplish the following broad policy goals (which, like a nesting doll, refer to 10 strategic actions, each with several implementation steps):
Revitalizing the partnership. The first four actions will strengthen the partnership among universities, federal and state governments, philanthropy, and the business community in order to revitalize university research and speed its translation into innovative products and services.
Strengthening institutions. The next three actions will streamline and improve the productivity of research operations within universities.
Building talent. The final three actions will ensure that America’s pipeline of future talent in science, engineering, and other research areas remains creative and vital, leveraging the abilities of all of its citizens and attracting the best students and scholars from around the world.
One recommendation that has gathered a fair amount of attention is the following (Recommendation 6):
“The federal government and other research sponsors should strive to cover the full costs of research projects and other activities they procure from research universities in a consistent and transparent manner.”
This refers to a relatively inside debate over direct and indirect costs of research. The report recommends that federal funding needs to cover more of the administrative costs of research. Certainly, there are other recommendations in the report that encourage universities to make improvements in administration, management and operations of their institutions. But this recommendation is a big ask.
Oddly enough, the bigger ask, that states (among other things) restore the significant cuts in appropriations for their public universities (Recommendation 2). As the states remain mired in the current economic difficulty, this is possible more dead on arrival than the plea for the federal government to cover all administrative costs.
Frankly, given the structural challenges and funding difficulties facing U.S. research universities, I’m disappointed at what seems to be a complete absence of innovative thinking. I hope to write more on this as I digest the report further. I don’t think there will be a rush on that, as I think this report will gather dust pretty quickly.