Four Congressional Leaders Ask National Academies to Assess Condition of Research Universities

Ask for “Top Ten” Actions Needed to Strengthen and Preserve America's Competitive Edge

Posted on June 22, 2009

Four congressional leaders have asked the National Academies to form a distinguished panel to assess the competitive position of the nation’s research universities. “America's research universities are admired throughout the world, and they have contributed immeasurably to our social and economic well-being,” the Members of Congress said in a letter delivered today. “We are concerned that they are at risk.” The bipartisan congressional group asked that the Academies’ panel answer the following question: “What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?” The request from Congress is similar to a request in 2005 that led to the Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which in turn was the basis for the “America COMPETES Act.” This Act created a blueprint for doubling funding for basic research, improving the teaching of math and science, and taking other steps to make the U.S. more competitive. The members of Congress who signed the letter to the Academies are U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations; Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a former U.S. Secretary of Education and Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference; and U.S. Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ralph Hall (R-TX), the respective Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “America’s research universities are powerhouses of innovation, incubators for the ideas and breakthroughs that have made America an economic superpower. The America COMPETES Act helped set the framework to keep America an innovation nation, but we must remain ever vigilant in retaining our competitive edge. We need the best minds working on what steps we can take today to keep our nation innovating tomorrow and every day after that,” said Senator Mikulski, Chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee that funds America’s science and space agencies. “The United States is home to most of the best research universities in the world – they are our secret weapon for creating jobs,” Alexander said. “But other nations are catching up. We need the best minds in our country to help us figure out how to maintain this competitive advantage.” “Half the world’s workers earn less than $2 a day. We cannot—and would not want to—compete at that level,” said Gordon. “We need the best new ideas and the highly skilled workforce to turn those ideas into the technologies that will grow our economy. None of this would be possible without world-class universities that serve as the foundation for our innovation economy.” “Our research universities are unsurpassed, and it is imperative that we maintain this advantage if we are to stay ahead of the innovation curve,” added Hall. “I have no doubt that the United States will continue to lead, but it is always good to assess the status of our research universities today, so we can be sure they remain on tomorrow’s cutting edge of science and technology.” In 2005, Alexander, Gordon, and two other Members of Congress—including Hall’s predecessor on the Committee and former Chairman, retired Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y. 24)—asked the National Academies, “What are the ten top actions federal policy makers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so the United States can successfully compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st century?” The National Academies responded by assembling a group of distinguished individuals, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, that provided 20 recommendations, in priority order, in the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report. Those recommendations provided the basis for the America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August 2007. The legislation was designed to protect America’s brainpower advantage by improving the teaching of math and science and putting the nation on a path to double its investment in basic research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The National Academies is comprised of four organizations: the National Academy of Sciences, The National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. The National Academies bring together committees of experts in all areas of scientific and technological endeavor. These experts serve pro bono to address critical national issues and give advice to the federal government and the public.