I misunderstood the position of Bob Berdahl, the president of the AAU in a post last week, and I stand corrected. Berdahl’s letter to the Chronicle makes clear that he does not favor reducing the number of research universities in the United States, as I thought. His position is that he does not know what the right number of research universities might be, but it is that what he refers to as “key elements of our society — the federal government, state governments, the private sector, and, of course, the universities themselves” must ensure “that these institutions have the resources they need to be successful.” This is the reasoning behind his support of the Congressional request to the National Academies to “assess the condition of research universities.” The Congressional request makes clear that the interest of Congress is in preserving “America’s Competitive Edge” in order to ensure the country’s “social and economic well-being.”
Mr. Berhdahl is careful to state only that “one objective” of such a study should be to determine how many research universities the United States “realistically requires” to “produce the basic research necessary to sustain an inventive and innovative economy.” The emphasis in the Congressional letter is, however, clearly on the importance of research universities to the competitive position of the country in the context of the global economy. We can expect that the response will be to emphasize better financial support for scientific research. To the extent that teaching is mentioned, we can expect that the response will be to improve science and math teaching. At least these have been the responses to identical requests in the past. I am in favor of all of these things — who is against more knowledge, greater innovation, and enhanced science-math literacy?
But in my view such calls amount to little more than the standard plea for greater federal support for research in science and technology. They do not address the much more difficult question of how (if at all) research universities foster innovation — does anyone really believe that there is a straightforward correlation between increased research funding and enhanced scientific innovation? Does anyone believe that such innovation can be quickly and predictably translated into economic productivity? Might it be that research is not the only (or even primary) source of innovation? Shouldn’t we also be asking the more complex question of whether research universities are (or are not) developing the broad range of human resources required by a vibrant democracy? This would be primarily a question about teaching, not research, and it is a question we could not answer without better modes of evaluating student cognitive outcomes in undergraduate education. Perhaps that is the question we should be asking Congress to put to the national academies? It might just be that teaching reading and writing is as critical a national need as teaching science and math. But we’ll never know if we don’t ask.