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Future of research universities: more questions than answers at science meeting

STANFORD -- Scholars may look back on the early 1990s "as a time when the research universities of this nation began to change their roles," Princeton University pPresident Harold Shapiro told the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

It was a statement that could have summed up half a dozen AAAS sessions, as scientists, economists and government representatives debated discontent over research funding, crises in research ethics and the relative roles of research universities, national laboratories and private corporations.

Beyond a consensus that the future of research and the health of the economy are closely intertwined, the debate primarily reflected a range of opinions about how research should be conducted, supported and linked to the nation's needs for competitive technology and an educated work force. Here is a sampling of what was said in Chicago:

  • Shapiro, in the session he organized, "The Future of the Research University": The university is viewed from outside as essential to the economy but inadequate to the task ahead. The public's faith in university leadership has been shaken by tales of scientific fraud, athletic-recruiting scandals, the "political correctness" debate, escalating costs and "an inability to distinguish between legal and appropriate expenditures."

Shapiro sees the potential for a major shift in roles - a reallocation of research funds to government labs or private industry, and the growth of new types of teaching and research institutions. He urged examination of the scholarly agenda and of the social organization of universities.

There is much at stake, Shapiro said: "Will society continue to value the products of the mind? Will knowledge still be considered a force for good?"

  • Arthur M. Hauptman, vice president of the American Council on Education: Current problems in research and education funding will not end with the recession. There are other pressing needs for public funds, a limit to tuition increases, and a limit to how much can be saved by deferred maintenance.

To help themselves, universities have to be smarter in the '90s, Hauptman said. They must contribute to real growth in the nation's economy, to build wealth rather than redistribute it.

"Don't depend on a growing share of the pie," he said.

An example of building wealth, he said, would be to build the quality of a library collection. As an example of redistribution, he said that "indirect costs are a zero-sum game. . . . An army of accountants is not the best use of research dollars."

  • Stanley N. Katz, professor of history at Princeton and president of the American Council of Learned Societies: "I fear for the preservation of some of the most admirable achievements of the past half century. . . . I appeal to the national scientific community to work together with their colleagues from the humanities."

Katz said that humanists are uniquely vulnerable to institutional budget cuts because their base of support is already thin. Library cutbacks are especially damaging, because "we are the people of the book." Humanists and social scientists are needed to do the bulk of the university's public service - that is, teaching undergraduates - yet young scholars who could teach future generations are being squeezed out of academe.

"There has been a fundamental change," Katz said. "Universities have restructured themselves to accommodate research."

Teaching decisions are made by the university community, but research decisions are made one-on-one, between the researcher and the "other dean's office" at the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, he said.

  • Roland Schmitt, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.: There is "a disturbing erosion of the sense of citizenship and collegial behavior within academe. . . . Universities have become holding companies for research entrepreneurs."

Schmitt spoke in a provocative session titled "Too Many Researchers? Too Little Funding?" He addressed a conundrum: Surveys of researchers show widespread dissatisfaction about inadequate funding, yet per capita support of academic Ph.D.s in research has grown in constant dollars throughout the 1980s.

However, Schmitt said, federal support of academic research and development declined in the '80s, with institutions making up most of the difference from their own funds. There has been a tilt away from teaching, as more young Ph.D.s are hired to do research but not offered faculty positions. Investigators negotiate directly with disparate funding agencies that share no common vision. Federal research dollars are aimed at procuring research, not supporting education.

Universities cannot continue to raise more money for their own research, Schmitt said. To re-establish the government- academic compact, academics must explicitly link research to values shared by the public at large - to education and to useful technology. Government funding agencies should make this link explicit as well.

In addition, government and private funders should help to build or rebuild world-class institutions. "For too long, we have neglected the very homes in which our researchers work," Schmitt said.

  • Norine Noonan of the Science and Space Programs Branch, Office of Management and the Budget, took a jaundiced view of researcher dissatisfaction.

"Where is the crisis?" Noonan asked. Since 1981, research dollars to universities and colleges have risen 37 percent in real terms, she said. Every field has gained, and the biggest driver in the increase has been salaries. The proposed fiscal 1993 budget includes an 18 percent increase for the National Science Foundation and a 9 percent increase in support for individual investigators.

"Academic institutions benefit greatly from research," Noonan said. "It is no partnership if one side demands the other side pay all the costs. We are living up to our part. . . . I challenge every scientist, every engineer to do the same."

  • Jeff Grant, National Institutes of Health: "Congress is challenging us to prioritize in science." Grant presented a strategic plan that NIH has drafted to set goals for allocating research in an era of austerity.

Among the key points are that NIH will choose research focuses by identifying primary health problems and promising research opportunities; it will consider its stewardship role in building intellectual capital and maintaining the public trust. He said a balance would be sought between renewing worthy grants and encouraging new research.

"The cornerstone will be investigator-initiated research," Grant said. "It will be driven by a recognized need to increase the culture of research discoveries."

  • Jim McCullough, Program Evaluation Staff, National Science Foundation: Scientists have long complained that the scientific support system is too conservative to recognize and fund breakthroughs in knowledge. In a 1985 survey of principal investigators, two-thirds agreed with the statement, "NSF is not likely to support innovative new research because the likelihood of peer review is slim."

McCullough said NSF has responded with a program to fund innovative research, "and a current survey shows that it's working."

His topic engendered a lively discussion. Audience members suggested that the system discriminates against new investigators and rewards quantity of publication over quality of research. It was proposed that tenure and grant decisions be based on the quality of a researcher's five best publications, rather than by the sheer number of studies published.

Schmitt remarked that NSF had tried such a system, but peer reviewers rejected proposals because the researcher appeared to be "not productive."

An audience member objected, saying, "It's not just (grants and) tenure. Many universities assign space based on the research dollars the investigator can bring in."

What was perhaps the most illuminating fact of the discussion emerged from a fundamental question: "What is the appropriate number of researchers, and what is the number that can be funded?" "We can't agree; we don't know," said Daryl Chubin of the Office of Technology Assessment.

Chubin, organizer of the "Too Many Researchers?" session, said OTA had been unable to find a census of the research community, that is, the total number with funding and those with grants pending.

  • McCullough summed up his speech with an illustration of the difficulty of picking "winners" when awarding grants:

The king of Portugal turned down a chance to bankroll Columbus' voyage of discovery because the king's advisers were the wisest navigators of their day. They said Columbus was pointing the wrong way - the way to the Indies was east around Africa, not west. "And," said McCullough, "they were right."



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