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A Changing Environment for Graduate Programs in Science

by D. Allan Bromley

Never before in the history of this nation has the funding environment for American universities been less stable or changing more rapidly. We Americans have a unique and deeply rooted belief that graduate education and research are synergistic and inextricably linked; high quality education requires close and continuing contact with high quality research. But with the coming presidential and Congressional elections in 1996, difficult and often wrenching changes lie ahead for American higher education.

Prior to World War II, U.S. university research enterprise was supported almost entirely by private philanthropy, most particularly by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations. The war, with its major programs in radar, nuclear weaponry, and high quality medicine, changed this irretrievably. In his 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush articulated his famous promise that if U.S. taxpayers were prepared to support the research enterprise in peace as they had in war, then the benefits that would flow to our society would be enormous.

In 1948, when I received my bachelor's degree, and as the postwar research and development enterprise was being assembled, television and antibiotics were still very much laboratory curiosities. Polio still stalked the summer playgrounds and swimming pools. Computers were programmed by inserting heavy cables into equally massive plug boards, and their maintenance - with steady replacement of burned-out vacuum tubes - required a small army of engineers and technicians. The DC-3 was at the frontier of our transportation system, the transistor had just been invented, portable telephones were firmly in the domain of Dick Tracy, and man in space was pure science fiction.

All this has changed dramatically. Bush's promise has been kept. Unfortunately, however, around 1950, as federal funding began to flow freely to the universities, two very important things happened: the foundations backed away from most areas of graduate education, feeling that their relatively limited resources could more effectively be deployed elsewhere; and the cooperative bridges that had developed between the universities and the private sector were burned - in a rather cavalier fashion - by universities that erroneously believed that they no longer needed such industrial contacts.

The science and technology enterprise in the U.S. is based on three institutional pillars: research universities, federal laboratories, and industrial laboratories. All three are in serious trouble. As a consequence of a few highly publicized cases of misconduct, universities have lost the trust and respect of both the public and of Congress. The original missions of most of the federal laboratories, most of which were articulated during the immediate post-war period, have long since been played out, and in the absence of any obvious mechanism for creating new missions, their activities have fragmented.

As for industrial and corporate laboratories, we are witnessing a period of rapid and significant change. For decades, American corporate laboratories - those at AT&T, IBM, GE, Hewlett-Packard, and Xerox, to name a few - carried out extensive long- and short-term research, and were responsible for developing the products and processes that often defined the character of their industry 10 and twenty years into the future. Now under intense pressure for short-term quarterly results, these laboratories are being systematically reduced in size and scope. Meanwhile, major industries in Japan, including Sony and Hitachi, are pulling in personnel and resources from their worldwide networks to create world-class laboratories. We are heading in diametrically opposite directions.

The fundamental public policy issue that is emerging - one that ultimately reflects upon this country's future economic competitiveness - is how we in the U.S. should replace the long-term research that formerly was carried out in corporate laboratories. Many have argued that the research universities should pick up this responsibility, because of the additional educational benefits that accrue when research is carried out on university campuses. Meanwhile, the 104th Congress is looking to the industrial sector to replace dwindling federal funding to the universities.

In broad brush terms, U.S. federal support for research and development has increased by more than 325 percent in real terms between 1960 and 1993. Since 1993, however, the trend has been downward. The White House has largely abdicated responsibility for science and technology. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Clinton mentioned science only once, promising to eliminate such nonsense as the study of stress on plants, without recognizing that this is a major fraction of current agricultural research. Although there is still a Congressional consensus that we are underinvesting in R&D, there is an even greater thrust to reduce the size of government, to downsize our research and educational enterprises, and to eliminate entire agencies, such as the Department of Commerce.

Both the Clinton Administration and Congress keep talking about slashing indirect cost reimbursements to the universities related to the federally supported research conducted on their campuses. Underlying this is a fundamental lack of understanding that indirect costs are every bit as real as the direct ones, as well as the rather quaint belief that indirect cost reimbursements constitute some kind of slush fund that the universities should be allowed to keep in good years and be prepared to give up in times of budget crunch. Unfortunately, the universities lack a visible spokesperson capable of making a compelling case for higher education in this country. Some have already begun to refuse approved federal grants and contracts, even with full allowed indirect cost reimbursement, on the reasonable grounds that they can no longer afford to make up the unreimbursed difference.

In December 1992, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) presented a report to then-President George Bush on the vital interface between the nation's research intensive universities and the federal government. While it was largely forgotten in the wake of the Bush-Clinton transition, I believe it will eventually have a major impact on the research universities that do the lion's share of our fundamental research and graduate education.

The report's fundamental consensus is that we cannot expect any significant growth and most probably can expect significant reduction in the total support available to the research universities. This implies that even in the most prestigious institutions, weak departments must be eliminated to allow sustained, world-class excellence in the remaining ones. Difficult and unpleasant choices will be required, along with regional cooperation, so that students can continue to be offered a broad spectrum of education, although not necessarily within the same institution. The report also notes and supports a rapidly growing public perception that the research universities are not devoting enough attention to teaching. Greater emphasis on teaching in inevitable, even if it means some reduction in research activity.

What, then, is the future of funding for American universities? We cannot keep raising tuition, passing on unreimbursed cost to parents. I am not at all sanguine about our chances of substantial industrial funding, given the increased questioning in that community as to what corporate R&D has really done for their bottom lines. And in the absence of change in capital gains and income tax legislation, I see no substantial increase in private or foundation philanthropy.

I do, however, see the possibility of increased federal funding to the universities, if representatives of higher education agree to argue the case persuasively to transfer federally supported research that can be equally done in a academic or federal laboratory environment to the universities because of the education benefits that accrue when that research is done in a university. Yet it is clear that the university community must learn to live with less, to be more efficient, and to be much more selective in choosing how to invest their increasingly hard-pressed resources.

Above all, both public and private universities must learn to be more effective in presenting their case for support. We are the least effective of all the political constituencies, unfortunately characterized by what Washington views as a residual, arrogant assumption that sooner or later federal officials will realize how important our contributions are to the nation and provide the necessary support. If this was ever true, it certainly is not now.

Despite our current difficulties, I am convinced that the discoveries and surprises of the next 50 years will make those of the past pale by comparison. I also remain convinced that those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves physicists have been engaged in one of the greatest adventures accessible to mankind, and that physics, the most fundamental of the sciences, will continue to make major contributions to the quality of life of all people.

D. Allan Bromley is the Sterling Professor of Sciences and Dean of Engineering at Yale University, and the former presidential science advisor during the Bush Administration. This article was adapted from his keynote address at the APS/AAPT Department Chairs Conference on Physics Graduate Education for Diverse Career Options in May 1995.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin