Across the Charles River from Harvard University’s historic main campus is a huge vacant lot surrounded by a temporary fence.
This site in Boston’s Allston neighborhood was to have become a $1 billion, state-of-the-art science complex, housing new departments that would do cutting-edge research into stem cells, regenerative biology, and “biologically inspired engineering.”
But even famously wealthy Harvard has found itself struggling to rebound from losses to its multi-billion-dollar endowment as the stock market tumbled, and construction on the 589,000-square-foot complex was stopped.
Shortfalls in yields from endowments at private colleges, cuts in state budget allocations for public campuses, and the first multi-year decline in decades in federal funding for academic labs are hobbling American universities that together conduct more than half of the all-important basic research essential for technological and commercial breakthroughs.
“This is a quiet national issue. It doesn’t necessarily get headlines. But we are witnessing a redefining of the U.S. research university, and I’m not the only one who’s very concerned about it,” says Howard Gobstein, executive vice president for research and innovation at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
More than three quarters of provosts surveyed by the association said budget cuts were taking a toll on their universities, including research. Competitor countries such as India and China, in the meantime, are aggressively building not just new science buildings, but entire universities. And there’s a crack in another longstanding contribution U.S. universities have traditionally made to the American economy: Because of fewer opportunities and government red tape, gifted international students who come to the U.S. for training are increasingly opting to return to their home nations with their newfound knowledge, instead of remaining in America, as most once did.
“Do an internet search on biotechnology bachelors’ programs in India and you will be surprised at the number of hits you’ll get,” says Amit Mukherjee, an Indian-born business consultant and author who teaches technology, operations, and information at Babson College. “Two hundred universities in India are offering some sort of program. And Harvard, the richest university in the world, has been talking for the last five years about building this new department of biotechnology and it hits a bump in the road and the darn thing is just pushed back.
“When Harvard gets around to opening it, will be the best school in the world in biotech,” Mukherjee says. “But the sheer number of people that will come out of these Indian schools will absolutely overwhelm anything that Harvard can produce.”
Meanwhile, American states have slashed billions of dollars from public higher education, and $5.3 billion in federal stimulus funds they got to prevent even deeper cuts has run out. The proportion of state budgets earmarked for higher education fell from 11.4 percent two years ago to 10 percent last year, according to the National Association of State Business Officers. And even that masks drastic cuts in states like California, which has slashed more than $2 billion from its world-renowned public universities.
“The funding model for large public research universities is mostly broken,” Gobstein says. “Not only has there been a 20-year decline in state appropriations for our institutions; in the last several years it has gotten even worse.”
Economic shifts have subtly affected university research in important ways besides reducing the supply of money that keeps labs going. Senior faculty are putting off retirement, blocking the careers of younger researchers with new ideas. The average age of researchers receiving their first grants from the National Institutes of Health has crept up to the early 40s. And competition for declining federal funding has shrunk the proportion of applications that succeed to fewer than one in five.
“What these kinds of things are prompting is a lessened interest by really smart people to go into these fields,” Gobstein says. And for those who are already in the system, it means more time spent writing proposals than doing research.
Among the researchers walking away are international students who used to get their educations in the U.S. and stay put. Students from abroad keep pouring in—last year, the number of new graduate students from China alone grew 21 percent to more than 127,600, surpassing India for top place, according to the Council of Graduate Schools—but while 80 percent of Chinese and Indian students who earned doctorates in the U.S. traditionally stayed, Vivek Wadhwa, an executive in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, reports that a “substantial number” are now going home because of the decline in research opportunities and the long line of more than 500,000 skilled workers waiting for one of 12,000 visas made available each year for them.
“America is educating the worlds best engineers and scientists and mathematicians, a vast number of whom come from competing nations, and instead of doing everything we can to keep them here, we send them home,” says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Houston-based Plunkett Research, which follows research-and-development trends. “It’s absolutely absurd.”
Next Wednesday: Inside American R&D – Part III: The China (and India) Syndrome