Fewer Research Universities?

Update: In addition to the comment below from the AAU that provides clarification provided regarding the article in The Chronicle described in this post, I will add that Mr. Berdahl’s commentary on this issue can be read in The Chronicle, and Stan Katz apologizes for misinterpreting Berdahl’s comments, also in The Chronicle. Stan also poses some questions of his own, such as “Shouldn’t we also be asking the more complex question of whether research universities are (or are not) developing the broad range of human resources required by a vibrant democracy?”

Today The Chronicle of Higher Education reports a suggestion from the Association of American Universities that the US “may need “fewer but better” when it comes to top research universities.” The Chronicle reports AAU has taken its concern to the National Academies (Science, Engineering, IOM, NRC):

The association isn’t making any specific recommendations regarding such a reduction and instead has asked the National Academies to study the question. It also hasn’t said how deeply the number of American research universities would be reduced, though Mr. Berdahl [AAU president] suggested federal spending decisions could play a role.

Berdahl sent a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander in February asking, “How many research universities does the United States realistically require in order to maintain its agenda of innovation and advanced training?”

This in turn led to the press release earlier this week (distributed by AAMC & I’m sure other groups) by Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), joined by Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ralph Hall (R-TX), in which they ask the National Academies to come up with “the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?”

Sounds like AAU thinks the answer is more money to fewer institutions. The NIH’s CTSA and other major Roadmap programs are distinguishing to a certain extent the haves from the have nots. Consider too that of the 20K+ Challenge Grants submitted, ~7% came from 5 institutions, which comprised less than a quarter of one percent of applying institutions. Not that they’ll all get funded of course.


  1. bikemonkey said

    Methinks that putting more money into fewer Congressional districts and fewer states is not the way to gain broad support from Reps and Senators…

    • D said

      Did they consider decreasing the size of the schools instead of their number? That is smaller schools with more focused research strengths. It is not clear that larger schools are more efficient at spending research $.

      And when I say smaller schools I mean those that get less than 100 megadollars/year in NIH money.

    • writedit said

      Well, since research funding, at least that by the NIH, is distributed based on peer-reviewed science rather than earmarks, the defense contractor model of sticking 5 jobs in every Congressional district won’t apply.

      I’m not sure the moderately funded schools are moderately funded (<$100M/y) because they are focusing their efforts on a few research strengths. I suspect the money is diluted among many applicant departments and research groups. I was previously at a $65M university (NIH $), and though a couple of departments stood out, none significantly so, and none were the result of a defined institutional effort to strategically invest in their programs. Then there are the mediocre, non-selective grad programs that do not do their students (unsuccessful in obtaining slots at more competitive institutions) any favors, and I suspect this is what AAU would like to trim as much as anything else.

      • D said

        You are right. I hope. I am curious what mechanism they would use to prevent these schools from writing for grants. I guess they (the states I think. I don’t remember how this works) could decertify the PhD programs in the lower performing schools. I don’t know how you could prevent them from applying for grants.

        But, how much money would this even free up? Back to Reporter and see.

  2. cathyk said

    Can you give us a source for the Challenge figure– 7% from 5 institutions (am guessing at the identities but wanted to check and see if I was right)

    • writedit said

      This information came from a colleague at the NIH, but you remind me that the administration here at BICO sought an official (publishable) list of the top 5, so let me see if they extracted this from the PR folks at CSR or OER.

  3. Eli Rabett said

    One of the interesting things you can glean from NRC studies of graduate education is that the number of graduates scales as the square root of the ranking pretty much across all fields. The top quartile produces about half the graduates, and so on. There are so few graduates from the bottom tenth (and little grant support) that something like this would have no effect. What would have a major effect on the number of doctorates is to close the University of California system. Hmm, looks like they are doing that

    • writedit said

      Indeed, and as The Chronicle reports:

      California, however, is facing the possibility of severe budget cuts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed cutting state support for his state university system by nearly 20 percent in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

      Mr. Berdahl, who served as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley from 1997 to 2004, said he believes the nation’s economic prosperity depends on its investments in scientific research. Those investments, however, need to be targeted as wisely as possible, he said.

      California, as an example, might need to free its universities to act more independently in order to save them from their state budget turmoil, through steps that could include creating differentiated fee structures for different universities, and opening enrollment to larger numbers of out-of-state students, Mr. Berdahl said.

      I’m sure Mr. Berdahl would also put the UC system on the list of major research universities worth supporting at the expense of lesser institutions, at least in terms of federal funding. In view of the paylines about to plummet (further), more hard decisions lie ahead no matter what.

  4. Barry Toiv said

    I am Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities. Bob Berdahl is my boss, and before this interesting discussion gets out of hand, I want to clear up a misperception. Despite the implication of the piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Berdahl is NOT recommending that we have fewer research universities. What he is recommending is that we examine the question of how many research universities the country needs. When the National Academies conducts a study of what the nation should do to sustain and strengthen America’s research universities — as it has been asked to do by four members of Congress (http://mikulski.senate.gov/Newsroom/PressReleases/record.cfm?id=314864) — he is urging that it address a number of questions, and this is one of them. He makes no judgment himself as to whether there should be fewer than there are today, more than there are today, or even the same number. He does, however, believe that whatever that number is, key elements of our society — the federal government, state governments, the private sector, and, of course, universities themselves — must be prepared to ensure that these institutions have the resources they need to be successful. Dr. Berdahl will address this further in another venue. As you continue your discussion, I hope this more accurate description of his views will be helpful.

  5. whimple said

    Ok, I’ll say it. Barry Toiv, as you have described him, your boss Bob Berdahl is a pinhead. Let him speak plainly or shut up. If he thinks research should be consolidated so that all the boats don’t sink, let him say so. If he has identified a problem, let him say so. If he has a solution or even just a potential solution to that problem (whatever that is), even better, say that too.

    “What he is recommending is that we examine the question of how many research universities the country needs.”

    Why *exactly* is he recommending this? Does he think there is a problem with the number of research universities, or does he think everything’s super and we should examine this question just to keep busy? If he thinks there’s a problem, what does he think the problem is?

  6. writedit said

    I’m already dancing with the angel of death this week, so why not jump in here. If there was a way to equitably do so, I think the taxpayer would be better served by concentrating resources on institutions with solid foundations/infrastructure (i.e., everyone not hanging on by soft money) and with the critical mass to support genuine multidisciplinary collaboration … and a commitment to world-class grad studies programs (vs seeing grad students as income sources & cheap labor).

    BICO has this, and the faculty is incredibly collaborative – big name PIs excited to help with other PI projects – which I’m sure it happens throughout the top 10-20-30 research institutions. At mid-sized and smaller universities with fewer resources, where I also have experience, it’s pretty much every man/woman for him/herself, George Costanza fleeing the kitchen fire style.

    I think the R01s & other RPGs should continue to be scattered around based on novel ideas wherever they occur, but the centers, PPGs, cooperative centers/agreements, training grants, etc. should probably stay in the hands of those who would be the best stewards of the funding in terms of taking advantage of a rich depth & breadth of research facilities, equipment, expertise, etc. These places are not always the most efficient, but tweaking the F&A rates (generally lower & uniform so federal research programs aren’t seen as cash cows) & requiring cost sharing (or at least institutional guarantees to maintain the center etc. beyond the funding period as needed) could help in that regard. And actually, the big places have the better managed grants & contracts and sponsored programs offices since they have the indirects to support the size & expertise needed for these services.

    Given the funding realities of the coming 3-5+ years especially, I think formalizing the various tiers of research institutions & setting these designations as eligibility criteria for certain RFAs & big funding programs is not out of line. Probably not a chance it would happen though, and probably a hundred other opinions on allocating scarce research resources.

    However, this again brings to mind the impact of procedural justice on scientific integrity, as noted previously here in discussing work by Brian Martinson et al., such as:

    Procedural justice here refers to individual’s perceptions about the fairness of decision-making in organizations, particularly in the procedures that determine the distribution of resources. We hypothesize that when scientists perceive violations of procedural justice, that is, believe that decision-making about resources that affect themselves and their work is unfair; they will exhibit negative “corrective responses” such as misbehavior in research or other conduct that runs counter to normative expectations in science. On the other hand, when scientists perceive procedural justice, they will be more likely to behave in accordance with the highest standards of research integrity. … Our long-term objective is to develop assessment tools for the measurement of scientists’ perceptions of procedural justice in their work environments, as well as recommendations for interventions specific to the contextual levels that show the strongest relationships between perceptions of injustice and negative behaviors.

  7. D said

    If we are putting together a wish list, what I would like to see is that all large centers and such be required to have defined Milestones (papers published, patients recruited, studies completed etc) that clearly show the synergies or efficiencies presumed to exist. These would be negotiated and finalized with NIH’s input of course.

    For instance, for a basic science P01 or U54 a milestone might be that by the third year they will be publishing 25% more original research articles than an equivalent number (and dollar amount) of R01s in the same broad area of science. (This data is available to NIH). And, these Milestones and the success in meeting them be made public. If your P01 has lots of synergy prove it to the community.

    PS. It doesn’t have to be just pubs it could be patents, INDs, genomes sequenced, whatever. Just something more objective than “innovative” “novel” “paradigm breaking” “building my kingdom.” Except for the last one, as everyone knows (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/health/research/28cancer.html?) NIH doesn’t fund that kind of science anyway.😉

  8. writedit said

    Mr. Berdahl himself has published a longer commentary The Chronicle on his concerns and many questions about the status of research universities in the US. Included toward the end is his own clarification on the number of research universities needed:

    Finally, how many research universities does the nation require? What should the federal and state governments’ responsibilities be in supporting them? Here, too, there has been a misunderstanding of my views. I do not favor reducing or increasing the number of research universities in the country. I do not know how many we should have. But it is a serious question, worthy of examination. Whatever the answer, the nation needs to support its research universities in a manner adequate to their important tasks.

  9. writedit said

    Stan Katz apologizes in The Chronicle for misinterpreting Berdahl’s comments. Katz also poses some questions of his own, such as “Shouldn’t we also be asking the more complex question of whether research universities are (or are not) developing the broad range of human resources required by a vibrant democracy?”

    Perhaps now I am misinterpreting, but tier 1 research universities as job training venues?

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