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Volume 21, Number 2 Fall, 1994

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Science and Universities in the Balance

Robert M. Rosenzweig
Dr. Rosenzweig is former President of the Association of American Universities
and a consultant in higher education in Palo Alto, CA.


When I arrived in Washington early in 1983 to take charge of the Association of American Universities, the Reagan Administration had been in office for two years, and the prospects for the research universities did not seem terribly promising. The nation's economy was in the process of recovering from a bout of double-digit inflation, and the cure was the deepest recession since the 1930s. The main item on the Administration's educational agenda was to eliminate the Department of Education, a goal that they soon dropped, first because they did not have the votes and later because Bill Bennett showed how the Department could be used to slay all of the Republican Right's favorite dragons.

In higher education, the Administration had tried unsuccessfully to decimate the federal student aid programs, and perhaps as a result, seemed to lose interest in student aid altogether and was largely absent from debates over those programs that took place in the Congress. The first Administration initiatives in research policy were to attempt to end the support of social science research in the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and to prune drastically the educational programs of the National Science Foundation. In those efforts, they had more success, in the sense that it took four or five years for those programs to return to their previous funding levels. That, in Washington, is what passes for success. In all, the prospects for the nation's universities, at least insofar as they rested on the policies of government, were not pleasing.

I mention this brief retrospective as something of a warning about the hazards of prophecy, or indeed, about the way in which even the most sober analysis of undoubted facts can lead to the wrong conclusions. As it turned out, of course, the rest of the '80s were a kind of a boom period for universities and for research. There was a lot of heavy breathing on the ideological right and some smiting hip and thigh from the left, but what actually happened was that America's universities shared in the general prosperity of that strange decade. Fund raising campaigns of mind-boggling size were started and oversubscribed. Rapidly rising tuition caused some unease, but no real buyer resistance. Research funding rose as defense budgets soared, collaboration between business and universities began to grow, and the Congress continued to appropriate more money for biomedical research that the Administration requested.

It was a decade of expansion, and we should have known that it was too good to be true, because it surely was. Like the entire nation, higher education was swept up in the notion that what goes up does not have to come down. We fell victim to the psychology that has produced the classic bubble, followed by panic, cycles of history, from the famous tulip bubble of 14th century Holland to the great stock market crash of 1929. It turned out that not even this great nation could indefinitely spend more than it earned, that the national debt and the debts of individuals, both which rose meteorically, could only be sustained by real economic growth, and when that did not materialize, real consequences must follow.

It also turned out that for universities, expansion undertaken in the expectation of ever-growing future resources that would fund it became a burden that threatens institutional quality broadly when those resources do not appear. And, similarly, for the great enterprise of university research, expansion based on the expectation of ever-growing research budgets threatens research quality across a broad front.

As I left Washington earlier this year, that was the scene that lay before us. The facts are not in dispute; they are visible for all to see. Universities everywhere in the country face the need to fit their activities to the reality of diminished resources, and there is no real help to be expected from the revenue side of the ledger. The Defense budget is shrinking, large science and engineering projects like the Space Station and the Supercollider face increasing Congressional resistance, the constraints on the national budget in response to the drive for deficit reduction are felt in every governmental program, with no exception granted for those that benefit education and research. Once again, the prospect is not pleasing.

Pleasing or not, however, the prospect must be faced if we are to deal intelligently with the issues that lie ahead of us. I will describe those issues, the main lines of thought that seem to be forming, and the conditions that seem likely to shape their resolution.

By conscious acts of policy dating back to the end of World War II, the condition of basic research in America and the condition of America's research universities have been linked inextricably to one another. Absent a fundamental and wrenching change of direction, it is almost impossible to conceive of a healthy research enterprise in the context of an ailing and unstable university system, and it is equally difficult to imagine healthy universities in the context of a research enterprise that has lost its intellectual, political or financial moorings.

I do not suggest that we are yet on the brink of such apocalyptic happenings, but I do believe that we are at one of the truly important balance points in the development of public policies affecting research and higher education, and the decisions we choose to take--or to avoid--in the next five years or so will shape the direction of both of those important activities for some time to come.

To understand where we are and what lies ahead, it may be helpful to look briefly at how we have arrived at our present position. I will start with an observation that is demonstrably true, but that in some quarters is viewed as veritable heresy: The generosity with which the American people have supported universities and basic research over the last forty years not only is not the normal condition but is in fact unique in history. What we--those of use who have been fortunate enough to have lived our professional lives during this time--have come to believe as normal, even our just due, has already begun to wane and is unlikely to be resume.

The signs are there for us to see. Right now, the two most visible present symbols of the once expansive view of the nation's commitment to science and technology--the Space Station and the Supercollider--are fighting for their lives in the Congress, even after billions of dollars have been spent so far. The reason for their troubles was captured well by one Representative who voted against the Space Station, and was quoted in the New York Times: "'Having designed amateur rockets as a teenager,' said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a freshman Democrat from New York, he noted the reluctance with which he voted against the space station. 'But with a $4 trillion national debt, difficult choices must be made,' he said. 'It simply does not rise to a high enough priority level to compete with social services.'"

It has been hard for scientists to accept a scale of priorities on which they are not at the top, so accustomed had they become to being at the top. Moreover, their case is a strong one, by no means wholly grounded in self-interest. We are, after all, at a time of enormous scientific promise, and it is, to say the least, frustrating to see first-class ideas promoted by first-rate people fall by the wayside for lack of funding. Moreover, it is surely true that investments in science, overall, pay a high rate of return, both economically and in terms of enhanced human well-being. What the Supercollider and the Space Station tell us, whether or not they are eventually built, is that science now competes in the public arena with other social welfare needs, and its case, no matter how strong, will not automatically prevail.

That fact, by the way, is far from the Apocalypse of which I spoke earlier. Research and the universities in which it takes place will continue to be generously supported; the value of both is widely recognized and past investments have been amply rewarded. But the rate of growth that has characterized recent decades cannot and will not be sustained, and that is a fact having the most profound political and psychological importance. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the direction of university-based research will be shaped in important measure by the responses to a slower rate of growth in funding imposed on a system in which all pressures seem to be toward further expansion.

How are we likely to deal with this new reality? We have already seen two responses, one from universities and one from the political system. Since, as I will explain, they run in different directions, you can judge for yourselves which is likely to prevail.

For the first time in many years, university officials are talking and acting as if tomorrow is not guaranteed to be better than today. Perhaps you recall, as I do, the brief flurry of rhetoric in the 1970s under the heading of the "Steady-State University". Not much came of it because, I think, no one really believed that the steady state would be around for long. The attitude today is quite different. As one looks around the country, one sees major public universities, the University of California for example, that are responding to drastic budget cuts by eliminating academic programs and by examining and eliminating administration and infrastructure as General Motors, IBM, and a host of corporations have been forced to do.

It is not any easier to do those things in universities than it is in business. Indeed, in some respects it is more difficult. But easy or not, what is happening today is that growing numbers of institutions are making decisions about priorities, about what they do best and how they can sustain those things in order to protect quality under conditions of scarce resources. Notice that I used the dread P word, "priorities." That is a word that has been avoided like the plague in national science policy. I have some personal experience with that subject because several years ago I tried to stimulate a discussion of the need for scientists to help politicians think about how best to use resources in support of science when there are not enough of them to do everything that needs to be done. Aside from some personal abuse from some scientists and from some politicians, the common response was to tell me that what we needed to do was make the Congress understand how important science is. When we succeeded in that, I was told, then doubling the science budget would be easy.

It struck me then, that given the way in which our educational system is organized, or rather, not organized, and given the reluctance of the leaders of science to offer up their own children for execution, and given the reluctance of elected representatives to make decisions that hurt constituents, that the most likely response to shorter rations would come from the individual institutions at the bottom of the food chain. They would have no choice, because they must meet the payroll every month. I think that is exactly what is happening now. Moreover, I think it is healthy. The trouble is that, as in any system in which the actors make decisions largely without reference to one another, a market system in other words, the results, in terms of national needs, are quite unpredictable. Still, this is the way we do business in this country, and on the whole it works better than more centrally planned systems do.

But there is a rub in what is otherwise a healthy process. The market never works perfectly; it is constantly subject to forces operating on it. In this case, current political forces are working against the kind of sensible institutional decision making that I have described. Those forces are pushing in the direction of further expansion, and to compound the difficulty, the desired expansion is of a kind that would change the character of university research.

The driving force behind the political dynamic is the currently widespread belief that research, including university-based research, is a principal propellant of economic growth. Now, in the broadest sense that is true. Economic progress over the long run is knowledge-based and likely to become more so. It is, however, a long leap from that fairly bland observation to the policy conclusion that more research, or different kinds of research, will produce more economic growth in the short run. In fact, the evidence is quite compelling that a nation's capacity to use the fruits of research is more closely connected to its economic prosperity than is its capacity to do the research. The former rests on macro-economic policies, and probably cultural variables, as well, that are quite unrelated to research policy. Put it this way: No sensible person would say that our economy's dismal performance in recent years, especially in relation to our major competitors, is a result of weaknesses in our capacity to perform world-class research. That is the one area in which we are the undisputed leader. It is not even clear that we lag in our ability to see the economic uses of new knowledge. Surely, that has not been the case in the biotechnology industry. Where we have shown weakness is in our low savings rate, inattention to manufacturing processes, high levels of public and private consumption, high health care costs, and the like. Yet, notwithstanding some fairly convincing evidence, the current conventional wisdom has it that research is valuable and that it is possible to choose those lines of research that will produce the greatest economic return. The result of such a view is two-fold. First, every locality wants to have some of it, producing enormous pressure to expand the research enterprise, with more money if possible or by spreading available money more widely, if need be. Thus, states and localities boost their research universities and their national laboratories if they have them, or push for their creation if they do not. Members of Congress understand, if they understand anything at all, that what has economic value has political value, and they are as eager to fund their local research establishment as they once were to fund the local road, dam or post office.

It is a recipe for disaster. Absent large new funding programs, and no one sees any on the horizon, quality is attenuated as resources are spread ever more thinly over an expanding group of performers. In the process, the criterion of scientific quality is forced to yield to the blunt realities of political influence. And in the bargain, universities are either pushed or they pull themselves into lines of research that are based on alleged economic value and that are ever more remote from those things that universities do supremely well and that no one else does at all, fundamental inquiry and high quality teaching of graduate and undergraduate students. It is a bad bargain all around, but it is the one that political leaders, business leaders, and many in the academy are trying to make.

They are bound to succeed to some extent. Such powerful forces are hard to resist. But we are a resilient nation, generally capable of good sense, and with the capacity to develop resistance to unhealthy viruses. There are few signs that those qualities are still alive. Starting with the most recent, I would cite the report of the National Academy of Sciences, The National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine on the subject of science policy under constrained resources. The report in the New York Times of June 22, 1993, said:

"A committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering released a report today saying it is time for scientists to give ratings to the nation's progress in various fields of science, with an eye to determining just how much money society should spend on science, and in which fields.

It is the first time that a major scientific organization has outlined a procedure for determining, with the help of some objective numbers, how well fields of science are doing so that the White House and Congress can decide which fields may be getting enough money, and which fields too much. It is also the first time that the national academies, noted mostly for the slowness of their advice and their avoidance of controversial issues, have felt impelled to say that American science can remain world-class in all major fields, and clearly ahead of the world in a few, with no significant increase in funds for the moment."

If that has a familiar ring, it may be because it sounds quite like the formulation that many universities are using to evaluate their own commitments. This initiative may come to nothing--it will come to nothing unless the Academies are prepared to follow up with a nuts and bolts program to implement it--but it is at the very least a sign of the times, and a hopeful one if you believe that problems are more likely to be solved if they are squarely faced.

A second healthy development can be found in this Spring's report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Under the direction jointly by David Packard and Harold Shapiro, the report is notable among government reports for speaking the truth plainly. That fact can be seen even from the major headings under which they grouped their recommendations.

"A Matter of Limits: Adapting to a New Resource Environment"
"A Matter of Education: The Importance of Teaching at our Universities"
"A Matter of Public Trust: Restoring Confidence in our Universities"
"A Matter of Wise Investments: Federal Support of University-based Research"

It probably does not pay to get too excited about government reports, especially the parting shots of outgoing administrations. Nor should reports of the National Academy necessarily make the heart leap with optimism. But the important fact about both of these is that neither would have been written as little as five years ago. Neither rests on the premise that, if only we can ride this out for a few years, when the economy turns around it will be back to business as usual. And neither takes the position that the problem is that politicians do not understand how important we are. Instead, both are based on the proposition that a fundamental change has occurred in the conditions that govern science policy. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology finds the changes rooted both in the universities, themselves, and in the world external to them, and has suggestions to fit both. The report of the Academies takes the eminently sensible view that, if there is to be less money to spend on science, it will be better spent if scientists help politicians find some sound and defensible criteria for deciding how best to spend it.

None of this sounds very revolutionary, or even especially daring, but you may take my word for it after ten years of experience in dealing with these issues, these two reports are a refreshing and most welcome sign that reality is making a comeback. So there is hope. We may yet overcome the economic and political forces that threaten to weaken what we do best and must continue to do at the highest level of quality. We may, in the end, decide that is it better to do less, but to do it extremely well than to try to do everything, but at a much lower level of quality. As is so often the case, the best prognosis may call for pessimism in the short run, but optimism in the long run. That approach is better than most of the leading alternatives, and in any case, is the best that I can offer pending further developments.


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