Why research pays

August 15, 1997

The university of the future

Much of the initial comment on the Dearing committee report on higher education has focused on its call for a contribution by working graduates to the cost of their college education. This focus is entirely understandable, since issues of cost - of how much and who pays - are so closely bound up with issues of access.

In the United States, we have seen a steady rise in the number and diversity of higher education institutions since 1945. These institutions have offered a wide variety of two-year, four-year and graduate degree programmes at a range of prices, and US students can generally find access to affordable higher education.

Even most so-called elite schools in the US have maintained accessibility through a "need-blind" admissions system which augments publicly financed loans and grants with means-tested aid derived from university endowments, gifts and other revenues. This combination of institutional diversity and means-tested aid has resulted in rates of participation and graduation which are higher in the US than in the United Kingdom.

The Dearing committee deserves considerable credit for its frank recognition that broadened access is a necessary concomitant to increased investment in higher education. Any nation that manages its educational costs by reducing access to needy but qualified students will, over time, wreak havoc both on its economy and its social fabric.

The heavy media emphasis to date on tuition contribution by students should therefore come as no surprise. This emphasis has, however, masked another extremely important financial issue addressed by Dearing: how should modern industrial states structure their support for education and research in science and technology?

To US readers, the Dearing report presents a portrait of a centralised system for the coordination and funding of university-based instruction and research. For academics in the US, the UK system offers a stark contrast to our more sprawling and variegated approach.

Despite their differences, however, our two systems share many of the same immediate challenges. Thus, several of the Dearing report's conclusions and recommendations ought to resonate strongly within the halls of US academe and government at all levels. In turn, the American experience - especially as it relates to education in science and engineering - may offer some valuable insights to policy- makers in the UK.

Viewed from the US perspective, one of the Dearing report's most important aspects is its explicit recognition that research and teaching are highly complementary and mutually reinforcing activities - and that public policy should not drive a wedge between the two.

By supporting university-based research (and thereby integrating students into the research process) governments in both nations are also investing in the education of the next generation - an elegant and efficient concept. Every penny spent does double duty, simultaneously paying for research and supporting the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, the public sector in both the US and the UK has, in recent years, evinced an escalating reluctance to pay the indirect costs of instruction, equipment and infrastructure. This unwillingness to pay indirect costs threatens both the immediate quality of the research and the longer-term ability to conduct research at all.

US academics must hope, therefore, that the Dearing committee will be heeded here as well as in the UK in its recommendation 34 "that, with immediate effect, projects and programmes funded by the research councils meet their full indirect costs and the costs of premises and central computing, preferably through the provision of additional resources".

With an urgency born of undeniable fiscal constraint, the Dearing report ventures into two additional policy areas of great interest to research universities in the US. The first of these is the question of how to encourage greater private-sector funding for academic research. The second is defining a role for university-based research as distinct from that carried on by industry in its own operations.

The Dearing report takes on the first question by recommending that "an Industrial Partnership Development Fund is established immediately to attract matching funds from industry, and to contribute to regional and economic development." The second issue it defers by advocating that the Government "establish, as soon as possible, a high-level independent body to advise the Government on the direction of national policies for the public funding of research in higher education," (Recommendation 35).

In both cases, a crucial factor in formulating national research policy is left largely unexamined. The report finesses the question of whether it is possible - or even appropriate - to make a distinction between so-called "basic" and "applied" research in determining how to spend scarce public research funds. The experience of MIT and other US research universities suggests that the best course may be to eliminate this distinction entirely.

The eminent biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, has referred to the "basic" and "applied" labels as "one of the most damaging forms of snobbery in science". I would add that, in my experience, the most fruitful and rewarding environment is one in which development of theory and application proceed side by side, with ample opportunity for exchange and interaction. This may be why, in a recent National Science Foundation review of US patent applications, over 70 per cent of the research citations referred to publicly funded research (much of it conducted at universities) rather than to industrially funded research. Indeed, at least half of US economic growth since the second world war can be attributed to technological innovation, the lion's share of which has come from research universities.

Unfortunately, too much recent political dialogue about science and technology policy has been dominated by concerns about what is "applied" and what is "basic". According to this point of view, many research areas are market-driven and will be readily undertaken or supported by industry. They can thus be separated from the body of university-based research with no harm done to the national systems for innovation and scientific advance which have propelled our economies since the war. This argument is tempting to some because it suggests - wrongly - that research conducted within industry can replace publicly funded research. Policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic must recognise that, despite the enormous value and desirability of private investment in research, most large companies, in order to become internationally competitive, have transformed their research and development programmes to focus on reduction of product cycle times, improvement of quality, and other critically important but near-term goals. We must still look to the universities for the conduct of research whose commercial and societal potential lies many years in the future, and for the education of those who will translate the discoveries into new products, processes, services, and industries. Both UK and US academics must make every effort to explain the value of a continuum of research and the interconnected paths along which most modern technological developments proceed.

None of this is to suggest that the future of UK and US research universities ought not to include stronger and more numerous ties to industry. Indeed, a balanced portfolio of adequate governmental funding and private resources is desirable. Two recent examples drawn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's experience help illustrate the ways in which direct collaboration with industry can benefit all participants, bringing new re-sources into higher education and research.

In the spring, MIT announced a joint venture with Merck Pharmaceuticals, which is providing funding of up to $15 million for basic biological research and graduate education over an initial five years, with an option to extend the programme to ten years. Under the deal, MIT will propose scientific programmes and projects to a review panel composed of MIT faculty and senior scientists from Merck. Merck will have certain patent and technology licence rights to developments resulting from Merck-supported research, while MIT faculty and students will be able to share the results of their research through teaching, publication and participation in conferences and symposia. Even more recently, MIT's centre for transportation studies announced a new engineering degree programme designed in collaboration with corporate affiliates and intended to establish an intellectual base and educational preparation for a rapidly evolving new discipline with strong relevance to a variety of industries.

The master of engineering in logistics will be the first of its kind in the US. It will be offered in cooperation with several departments, including civil and environmental engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, and ocean engineering, and will receive advice and counsel from an industry steering committee. Providing both on-campus programmes and distance learning for mid-career students, this new programme will integrate practitioners into the curriculum development process and will serve as a magnet for industry interaction and support.

These two activities are examples of how universities can attract new partners in the educational and research enterprise by developing new kinds of programmes that respond to evolving societal needs. At the same time, however, universities in both the US and the UK should be wary of changes in policy, practice or governance that might undermine their autonomy or their ability to grow and evolve in response to internal dynamics. The Dearing report appropriately contains some strongly worded language on the need to preserve the intellectual independence of higher education, but it also urges research universities to pick - and focus their resources upon - a few areas of particular strength. A reasonable degree of focus, such as MIT's emphasis on engineering and science, is good. But the focus ought to be self-imposed, arising within a free market of ideas - not from a constraining central planning process. A certain amount of duplication and competitive jostling will result, but that is as it should be. In any given field of science or engineering, no government should be willing to put all its research eggs in a single university basket.

In the end, diversity of institutional types, roles, and programmes within higher education is expensive and redundant but in an information and technology-based global economy it is also immensely valuable and productive. All of us who work in higher education have an obligation to proclaim this fact. Above all, we must define that value not only (or even primarily) in terms of the considerable direct payback for investment in education and research, but in terms of the profound human satisfaction and joy that comes from the quest for fundamental knowledge about our universe and ourselves.

The historic willingness of Britain's public sector to foot most of the bill for higher education and academic research has been an affirmation of the principle that intellectual excellence and opportunity are hallmarks of an advanced civilisation. The Dearing report serves as a reminder that, even though the funding mechanisms may change, and even though higher education must change as well, the basic commitment is still well worth honouring. That is a reminder as urgent in Washington as it is in Westminster.

Charles M. Vest, president, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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