Greatness Thrust Upon Them: US Research Universities and the National Interest

The United States needs universities—some of the most fiercely competitive and proudly autonomous global institutions in America—to coalesce around national interests in economic prosperity and economic security.

In the 75 years since the end of World War II, the United States has steadily devolved a number of core civic missions to a decentralized system of state or privately chartered research universities. The nation depends on its research universities for the education of a research-capable, technically trained labor force that plays a key role in US technical entrepreneurship, industry, and government. The nation also depends on its research universities for innovations, a trained labor force for industry, and to create new knowledge that is shared with the world through open publication. This new knowledge serves humankind, of course, but is also an important aspect of US “soft power” in the world.

US research universities, fueled by research funding from the federal government, have performed admirably, delivering on these civic missions while providing social mobility for US citizens and immigrants alike. One unintended consequence of the tremendous success of the decentralized US research university system, however, is that the nation struggles to mount a coherent strategy to adapt to the rapid growth of science and engineering capability outside the United States and the integration of that capability in global networks.

National governments, including the US government, are responsible for international affairs, national security, and international economic relations. Other nations, most notably China, have placed technical talent development, the development of science and technology (S&T) capability, and industrial innovation at the center of their approach to geopolitics and economic development. In the context of our insular national history of research funding at universities and the S&T actions of other nations, business-as-usual research funding of US universities by the federal government is wholly inadequate to today’s challenges.

Other nations, most notably China, have placed technical talent development, the development of science and technology capability, and industrial innovation at the center of their approach to geopolitics and economic development.

In the more than 40 years since the “technology and competitiveness” crisis was first sparked by rising US imports of Japanese automobles and electronics, legislative debate combined with executive branch actions have created only marginal change. If the US research and innovation system is to adapt to rising S&T and innovation capabilities in other nations, then US research universities are crucial to the response. Our nation’s research universties, lacking direct access to national levers of control (they do not vote, engage in political action, or control government budgets), have no choice but to lead by example and commit to building actionable consensus around a few essential areas of national importance. The nation needs some of the most fiercely competitive and proudly autonomous global institutions in the United States to coalesce around the national interests of economic prosperity and economic security.

Any such change will be an anathema to many academics, accustomed as they are to focusing on education, the advancement of knowledge, and the global good. But the reality is that regional and national interests in talent development and innovation for industrial development are already clearly articulated in the charters and founding documents of many leading US research universities. Coalesing around US national interests in economic prosperity and economic security does not require that universities abandon their core values of openness, academic freedom, and contributions to knowledge for the good of humankind. But it does require research universities to step back from their conventional calls for additional federal funding for curiosity-driven research. Instead, they should partner with government and industry to propel a revolution in how the United States integrates the core civic contributions of universities with national interests in economic security in the context of shifting international economics and geopolitics.

Creating Actionable Consensus in Areas of National Importance

US government funding of open research at universities during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s drove their ascendance on the global stage. Today, the United States is home to approximately 150 universities with annual research expenditures regularly exceeding $100,000,000 per year. And depending on the ranking system selected, 30 to 40 of the top 100 research universities in the world are in the United States—more than in any other nation.

In most other nations, central government plays a more important role in direct university funding, regulation of educational institutions, information sharing among institutions, and even direct engagement in management and governance of research universities. The lack of central government coordination of US universities leaves a vacuum in policy approaches to economic security in our country.

Realistically, this vacuum will not (and should not) be filled by a new federal “Department of Advanced Education and Research.” Rather, it needs to be addressed by consensus among those institutions with detailed understanding—and skin in the game—of the basic research, research-informed education, and research-for-innovation processes. As vehicles for the required consensus building, universities are in a unique position. It is not an exaggeration to say that US government research funding and US research universities evolved as a single organism over the past 70 years, sharing a set of values and norms constantly reinforced by a revolving door of employment between senior research and development (R&D) positions in the federal government and university faculty and leadership.

The lack of central government coordination of US universities leaves a vacuum in policy approaches to economic security in our country.

Working together with their natural allies in government, industry, and higher education associations, US research universities need to create consensus about important changes needed in the nation’s S&T enterprise. None of these changes will occur, however, if university leadership defaults to calls for increases in federal funding of curiosity-driven research following historical patterns.

Increase Focus on Research-Informed Education

The research activities of US universities have two direct outcomes: 1) they advance knowledge through research and publication, and 2) they educate and mentor students who, on graduation, carry those advances into diverse applications in the broader world. The former is important to humankind; the latter is essential to our nation’s economic prosperity and security.

Although the United States lionizes the untutored or self-taught innovator in tech and business, university-educated researchers often are the limiting factor in national capacity in industries as diverse as biotech, artificial intelligence, catalysis, satellite applications, logistics, data science, animation software, and semiconductor manufacturing. Our national response to growth in science and engineering capability abroad desperately needs to include attention to development and retention of research-capable people at the cutting edge of knowledge across a wide range of existing and emerging fields of science and engineering.

Although there is not a one-to-one relationship between graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees and numbers of research personnel, there is evidence that the two are highly correlated. In the late 1990s the United States led the world with more than 800,000 personnel engaged in research. By 2017, according to UNESCO data, the number of researchers in China was 1.7 million, exceeding those in the United States by approximately 300,000. This growth in research activity parallels the meteoric rise in doctoral-level STEM graduates in China (from 7,800 in 2000 to 34,400 in 2015). This is important because research personnel have an outsized economic impact, with large economic multiplier effects that create both unskilled and skilled jobs. As an example, Enrico Moretti’s analysis of Apple’s 12,000 mostly high-tech jobs in Cupertino, California, showed that they generate 60,000 additional jobs, 24,000 of which are for skilled workers.

Research personnel have an outsized economic impact, with large economic multiplier effects that create both unskilled and skilled jobs.

The US economic policy establishment typically focuses on research funding, research results, and (in 2021) research security as endpoints in themselves; other countries are more ambitious. Most countries that have rapidly developed strengths in scientific and engineering capability have done so by investing in an industrial development strategy with explicit specifications for educating workers at universities. Thus the S&T policy of other nations—ranging from China and South Korea to Germany and many other European Union countries—has elevated the importance of industry problems in research funding, and thereby in human capital development, at universities.

Individually and collectively, US research universities need to step up to articulate and highlight linkages between taxpayer-supported, open academic research and US human capital. This is a critical and overlooked element of the argument linking public research investments to the current and future economic security of the nation. Similarly, US research universities play a unique and crucial role in attracting and retaining foreign talent. To continue this practice, universities should press the US government to establish national priority areas that fund foreign students and fast-track their H-1B visas or green cards.

Currently universities are joining calls for increased federal investment to develop and commercialize transformative, emerging, disruptive, or critical technologies, to name a few popular characterizations of advances in knowledge and application that have been identified as important. Although this leverages one strength and purpose of research universities, it pushes the most critical contribution of research universities into the background. Universities must shift to focus on how government funding for research can be reconfigured to drive a national agenda for research-informed education. This would include, of course, incentives for industry coinvestment in research at universities, again with a focus on advanced education.

Universities must shift to focus on how government funding for research can be reconfigured to drive a national agenda for research-informed education.

As a vehicle for consensus building on this crucial national issue, the White House, via the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should immediately establish a standing forum on research for human capital development. This national function, operationally dominated by research universities, has not received analytical or policy attention commensurate with its national importance. The forum should solicit briefs on the topic, including specific arguments for what types of research should be funded to best support advanced human capital development, from universities and bodies as diverse as the National Science Board; the Departments of Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), and Commerce; professional societies; higher education associations; and, of course, industry.

Regular contributions from such a forum, timed to be considered as the administration prepares its budget or as Congress considers research-for-competitiveness legislation or budgets, would be an important complement, or alternative, to calls for federal investment in flavor-of-the-week areas of science or technology commercialization.

Embrace Industry-Focused, University-Based Research and Education

US research universities contribute to the country’s economic prosperity and security through open (not proprietary), curiosity-driven research and talent development. This process is a wellspring that simultaneously feeds the high-tech, start-up economy and renews the technological capabilities of mature companies in the United States. The proliferation of university-based or university-adjacent incubators and innovation centers, and the colocation of corporate research laboratories or advanced technology operations with universities is the direct result of universities, US states, and companies seeing this process in action and building institutional mechanisms to take advantage of its momentum.

Government research funding—from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), DOD, DOE, and other agencies—has historically played a pivotal role in the process of building human capital and new knowledge that emerges from research universities. But the biases baked into US government research funding over the past 70 years are now out of step with the nation’s future needs.

This failure is apparent from the ways in which the availability of federal research money for defense, aerospace, energy, and biomedical topics have created and shaped the university-adjacent ecosystem. These research enterprises, often university managed, have crowded out other industry-focused activities that have emerged as robust industrial strategy in other nations. When the United States stood alone at the top of global science and engineering, the country’s bias toward defense and medicine in government-supported R&D was not a problem. The dual-use spin-offs of US defense R&D—and of NIH-supported biomedical research—are legendary and continuing, but there is an opportunity cost.

In other nations, structured government funding outside defense, aerospace, and biomedical research—especially for public-private collaborative research and education in other industries—is much more important and presents a stark contrast to the US approach. Examples are national institutions of translational research and industry-focused, research-informed higher education such as the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany or TNO in the Netherlands. There are also many one-off but long-lived, university-adjacent R&D activities that are industry focused with government support in other countries. Examples include the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, the Taiwan Semiconductor Research Institute, and the French Institute of Petroleum.

The United States has many notable successes in industry-focused on-campus research—the MIT Media Lab or the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research are good examples. But there is no substantial federal funding program specifically designed to solicit and fund proposals for industrial development-focused research and education activities at US research universities. An entrepreneurial professor with a good idea for such activity, generated internally or stimulated by industry partners, will often “shop” the idea to NASA, DOD, or DOE, or—if a plausible link can be made to curiosity-driven research—try to fit it into an NSF program.

There is widespread recognition that the US government’s approach to industry-focused, university-based, or university-adjacent R&D and education enterprises has been an on-again, off-again affair, and at a small scale. In response, a handful of programs have tried to stimulate a start-up environment, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s defunct Advanced Technology Program (later the Technology Innovation Program), as well as the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps. But larger impact is not feasible with such limited approaches. An additional recognition of this failure can be seen in recent legislative proposals that create a new, permanent, and largely independent directorate of the NSF as well as a raft of new funding entities that mimic the structure of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

There is no substantial federal funding program specifically designed to solicit and fund proposals for industrial development-focused research and education activities at US research universities.

We believe that a direct and first-principles approach to this national need calls for a new, independent funding agency unencumbered by 1) government missions such as defense or energy, or 2) a long history of supporting curiosity-driven research. Most importantly, this agency could match process to mission by drawing on the wide variety of proven domestic and foreign approaches to soliciting, selecting, funding, and managing industry-university research and education activities.

To rise above legislative wrangling and interagency turf battles, US research universities should lobby the the White House to ask the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to undertake a design process for a new independent government research funding entity to focus on university-based, industry-focused research and education projects, programs, major facilities, and long-lived research institutes. Leadership and a substantial portion of the study committee membership should be drawn from the senior ranks of corporate research and human resource operations, preferably including individuals with direct experience in university research and education relationships. In addition, the group should investigate industry-focused research funding approaches used in other nations, such as the UK Catapult Centres, German Fraunhofer Institutes, the Dutch TNO, and similar operations in other technologically advanced countries. Finally, the group should carefully consider successful and unsuccessful examples of component strategies, including obtaining industry matching funding and personnel rotations between industry and universities.

Once there is a design, there will likely be foot-dragging from leading US research universities that perceive the initiative as a threat to funding and support for curiosity-driven research. Nonetheless, when we benchmark research-funding organizations in the US government against those in other nations, it is apparent that this a critical gap. Furthermore, US research universities can be both innovative and quickly productive in response to shifts in government research funding, which has been demonstrated by their long history of organizational innovation in response to changes in government mission-oriented funding.

Align University International Engagements with US National Interests

Research universities, both in and outside the United States, are less and less campus-bound concentrations of talent and increasingly global, almost stateless, networks of faculty, students, and private sector researchers working to advance knowledge even while they address an environmental issue, create a business, change an industry, or cure a disease. This form of globalized research university activity presents tremendous opportunities for US prosperity and economic security. And it creates real vulnerabilities and risks.

Further, the government R&D funding establishment has given too little thought to the implications of the statelessness of US research universities, except to worry about research (e.g., intellectual property or dual-use technology) being stolen. This concern is shortsighted and fails to take into account the potential of US research universities as globalized entities that can be of crucial value to the nation in sharing the burden of economically important, near-term R&D—not just basic research—among nations and reaching out across national borders to learn and “capture” openly available frontier science and engineering knowledge of commercial importance from other countries.

This form of globalized research university activity presents tremendous opportunities for US prosperity and economic security. And it creates real vulnerabilities and risks.

Obviously individual US research universities must 1) maintain or improve compliance with US laws and regulations; 2) review existing research collaborations; and 3) participate actively in advocacy for, and help shape, research and education collaborations where there are likely demonstrable benefits to US national interests. Given recent history and the release of policy publications such as Fundamental Research Security bythe JASON advisory group, there are very few US research universities that are not already fully engaged in the aforementioned activities 1 and 2.

Actions to date are, however, primarily defensive in nature: they help protect the security and integrity of the US university-based research enterprise, but they will not help the United States benefit from the more than 70% of global R&D that is performed outside the country every year. To take advantage of this rich new arena, US universities need a new playbook for international collaboration that includes a set of guidelines for cross-border collaborations and engagements that serve the national interest. Universities also need access to robust confidential due diligence about the nature and risks of any cross-border partnerships they enter into.

Most US universities rely on an underresourced internal committee process to determine whether a particular proposed collaboration is in the university’s interest and consistent with its values. Even the most robust internal university processes do not have the authority or the capability to ask or answer rudimentary questions about conditions for international collaboration such as reciprocity, transparency, and national treatment. Similarly, US research universities would benefit from having access to a responsive, confidential, and impartial source of due diligence to evaluate proposed international collaborations.

These areas of weakness in US research universities are, of course, areas of strength in the US Department of State, which has long and deep experience in all forms of international collaboration and exchange as well as the national vulnerabilities associated with them. Through associations of higher education, universities should ask the US Secretary of State for help. The State Department, relying on its Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State; the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, should immediately launch an initiative to help develop voluntary guidelines for universities to explore international engagement and establish the capacity for due diligence on university cross-border collaborative activities, perhaps as a free-standing, not-for-profit entity. An essential aspect of this work would be to highlight and resolve, when possible, conflicting international collaboration guidelines among, for example, NSF, DOE, and DOD.

US universities need a new playbook for international collaboration that includes a set of guidelines for cross-border collaborations and engagements that serve the national interest.

US research universities should also pressure legislative and executive branch leaders to reformulate federal funding regulations that limit research funding to domestic enterprises, because it is demonstrably in the national interest to do so. This regulatory change would mean that research universities should spend some of their credibility and political capital to shift the conversation in Washington, DC, so that investing in overseas basic and precompetitive research and related R&D infrastructure—especially in collaboration with economic allies—is seen as advancing US interests.

If US universities cannot find or develop a path to international R&D collaborations that demonstrably benefits not only the university but also the United States, they will be judged harshly by taxpayers and their representatives in both state and national governments.

US Research Universities and the National Interest

Whether or not they have sought it, US research universities play a role in the innovation-based economic security policy in our country that no other domestic institution, or set of institutions, can fill. But substantial change is needed: our nation has only a few years to make substantial shifts in research focus, funding, and approach to keep pace not only with China but also with an increasing number of nations that see R&D, research-informed education, and tech-based business as the key to geopolitical security and economic prosperity.

Although additional federal funding and collaboration will be required, the ability of US universities to innovate could shift the landscape quickly. Within a few years the United States could regularly adjust its support for university-performed research in a way that is explicitly linked to developing and retaining research-capable and technologically sophisticated human capital. Most US research universities could have growing, robust, university-adjacent, industry-focused research and talent development enterprises. And more federal government funding would be available for university-based cross-border research and educational collaborations, which would have demonstrable value to the United States.

If US research universities advocate for these changes, leading by example when possible, it would demonstrate their ability to embrace their essential role in and responsibility for keystone aspects of US economic prosperity and security. This approach does not imply that US universities adopt a nationalist stance, but it does mean that US national interests are given due weight in the actions taken by university boards of trustees, administrations, and faculties. The future of US research universities is intimately entwined with US economic security in the new world order of globalized science and engineering. If the United States is to prosper in the coming decades, then the nation needs its research universities—in partnership with federal funding agencies, industry, and relevant associations—to rise to help the United States adapt to current geopolitics and international economic relations.

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Cite this Article

McLaughlin, Steven W., and Bruce R. Guile. “Greatness Thrust Upon Them: US Research Universities and the National Interest.” Issues in Science and Technology (September 22, 2021).