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Universities and Government - A Shared Commitment

Ernest J. Moniz, Associate Director for Science, Office of Science and Technology Policy

America's colleges and universities are unmatched in their capacity to provide advanced education in science and engineering and to enrich it through forefront research. The tight weave of research and education, fostered by Executive policy for half a century and supported through a robust bipartisan commitment, has served the nation exceptionally well. The nation's investment has been repaid many times over by a scientific enterprise without peer. The expression of scientific research in technological innovation has accounted for a major part of our economic growth, has underpinned our national security, and has promoted our ability to understand, prevent and treat disease. The promise of science and technology is far from exhausted, but will be realized only through continued strengthening of our world-class scientific enterprise. The bedrock of that enterprise is our system of research colleges and universities.

Why then are the universities and the government-university partnership under considerable stress? Clearly, we are dealing with the uncertainty engendered by significant change. The uncertainties of research funding are driven by the need to eliminate the federal budget deficit, a deficit whose rapid growth in the previous decade constrains investment today. The proper scope and scale of government are, to many, uncertain with the end of the Cold War and with the emergence of highly competitive economies in Europe and Asia. The information revolution has many institutions uncertain about their future roles in society. The challenge of broadly expanding education beyond the "three R's" into science and technology confronts our schools. Unquestionably, reexamination and reestablishment of the 50-year-old government-university compact is called for.

The Clinton administration's posture, at a general level, is rather straightforward. First, the health and future of our research colleges and universities must be nurtured by government, with strong research programs revealing nature's secrets, stimulating innovation, and yielding world-class scientists and engineers. This policy has been supported eloquently in recent months by CEO's of major corporations and by many of the nation's governors. Second, the universities and their faculties must help define and then meet important new responsibilities and obligations to a society in change. These comprise the shared commitment.

The rationale for this position is not complicated. As President Clinton said in his 1996 State of the Union address:

We live in an age of possibility. A hundred years ago, we moved from farm to factory. Now we move to an age of technology, information and global competition. These changes have opened vast new opportunities for our people, but they have also presented them with stiff challenges."

That reality drives an investment agenda with a strong emphasis on research and education, the two sides of the knowledge coin. Knowledge is the key resource of the information age. Thus, our knowledge institutions - schools, colleges and universities - will become increasingly central both to our society's collective prosperity and health and to each individuals' ability to prosper and grow within that societal structure. That is, knowledge inequities will correlate more and more directly with economic inequities and social inequities. Colleges and universities are not so much jewels in some mythical national crown, but rather an integral part of the crown itself.

Needless to say, this framework of values and policies must be translated into specifics. I will comment briefly on some of the research and education issues directly relevant to the government-academia partnership.

Research

The major part of the basic research portfolio, most especially research performed at universities, has traditionally been an area of bipartisan common ground. Federal support has grown steadily, but government plans for reducing overall domestic discretionary spending and the restructuring of many R&D-intensive industries have left universities extremely uncertain about future support. The most recent "hard data" are those in the administration's FY 1997 funding request. The figure reproduces the AAAS R&D highlights shown in the March 22, 1996 issue of Science. As is evident, priorities have been set in a highly constrained budget environment such that most programs which draw heavily upon and support academic researchers would increase. For example, the budgets of NSF and NIH, the bellwethers for university support, are proposed for 4.6 percent and 3.9 percent increases, respectively. Most of the mission agency basic science programs are supported fairly well. For example, the fusion program, which suffered a major reduction from 1995 levels, is proposed for restructuring, with a stronger emphasis on basic science and engineering. An obvious exception is the substantial drop in space science funding. However, this simply reflects the nearing completion of two large construction projects (AXAF and CASSINI). In fact, the space science budget sustains all the science missions and increases the funds for data analysis. All in all, the proposal clearly supports the high investment priority attached to basic research and its concomitant educational function in the universities.

The years beyond 1997 are very unclear for science budgets. Simple arithmetic highlights the issue. If total domestic discretionary spending, about $250 billion, were frozen for five years, spending power would presumably decline by about 15-20 percent, or about $40 billion, at the end of that period. Clearly, neither the overall balance between different parts of the budget nor specific program choices are set. Many variables, including overall performance of the economy, will guide the prioritization process. Still, one cannot ignore the potential magnitude of the shortfall and thus the need for the research community to articulate clearly the long term value to society of the research and education investment. In addition, irrespective of the eventual outcome, spending projections will affect year-by-year decisions, such as the construction of major new facilities in balance with ongoing research. For example, the NIH budget proposal contains significant funding for a new clinical center, a vital facility for sustaining clinical research. The DOE will be faced shortly with decisions about world-class neutron sources and about participation in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in the midst of considerable budget uncertainty. The necessity for these and other major facilities in advancing the scientific frontier will have to be evaluated against the size and scope of ongoing core programs. It is clear that scientific excellence will not be sustained long in any discipline without a focus on the most important scientific questions and the tools to address them. Only a dialog between government and the American science community will strike a scientifically and politically sustainable balance. A coalition of academic, industrial, and government leaders must speak for the future in emphasizing the need for stable investment in research and education.

Education

The information age will change both the process and the requirements of advanced education. With regard to process, it is easy to imagine radical departures in the cost-effective transmission of knowledge, simultaneously posing both leadership opportunity and threat for colleges and universities. With regard to requirements, a lively debate centers on K-12 education and the need for serious mathematics and science standards. Higher entrance and graduation standards may be the most direct route for colleges and universities to affect standards implementation. It may be time for the faculties of our colleges and universities to reexamine science "standards" in higher education. Thirty years ago, virtually all of the leading institutions had a serious science requirement. We would be hard-pressed to make that claim today, a time when science and technology will surely be of more importance in our children's lives.

These questions are clearly challenging ones for higher education. However, the critical shared responsibility in higher education is that of providing access. The importance of this collective responsibility follows directly from the central role of knowledge institutions in defining both societal and individual opportunity. While this is true for all fields of study, science and engineering careers have proved to be very effective pathways for social mobility for significant numbers. The discussions of recent years about the job futures of scientists and engineers should not cloud the basic fact that such careers remain relatively very attractive for both combined prosperity and personal satisfaction. More of our young people deserve the opportunity. Recent data provided by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering indicate that only 12 percent of our high school graduates have the mathematics and science background to pursue a technical degree. The number is only half that for underrepresented minorities, groups that already provide almost one-third of the college age population. We need to develop and utilize fully our human capital. A growing education gap will eventually be even more damaging to the social fabric than the budget gap with which we struggle today.

The Clinton administration is actively supporting programs to improve access. The programs range from increased Pell grants to direct student loans to tax deductions for higher education. However, partnership among universities is essential. Continued cost containment by colleges and universities is a major responsibility to society at large. Further significant cost escalation or retrenchment from a commitment to our ethnically and economically diverse population will extract too high a societal price in the knowledge-based economy of the next century.

There are numerous other issues, such as accountability in the award and management of research funds, and the rethinking of university-national laboratory relationships, which deserve elaboration. Some of the partnership issues touched on are in productive dialog, while others await more creative investments in change. A shared commitment is part of the answer in all cases. A secure sense of the future is the needed backdrop to investments in research and education, investments whose return is typically many years off. Government and academia must articulate together the strong link between these investments and the bright future we can anticipate in the age of possibility.

Ernie Moniz is a long-time member and fellow of the APS. He was Chair of the Physics Department at MIT before assuming his present position with OSTP.


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