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US universities should be leaner research machines, say National Academies

Posted on behalf of Zoë Corbyn.

America’s research universities need to give more bang for their buck. So says a report released today by the US National Academies that suggests universities take steps to become more efficient and productive, such as streamlining their laboratories.

The long-awaited 228-page report, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security, the gist of which Nature has previously reported, recommends ten fixes needed if institutions are to maintain their quality. It was requested by Congress in 2009 to examine the health of the nation’s research universities.

Magnified by the financial crisis, institutions are facing critical challenges that threaten to erode the quality of research and education, the report says. Federal funding has flattened or declined, and state funding has dropped by 25% on average and by up to 50% in some cases.

The list of remedies includes adequate and stable research funding from the federal government and more autonomy from the states so that institutions can better navigate the tumult for themselves. Investments should be restored when state budgets recover, says the report.

But it also calls on the universities to do their bit — providing a greater return on investment to their funders. In addition to streamlining general operations, research and teaching programmes should be reviewed with universities “encouraging greater collaboration among research investigators and institutions” and “adopting modern instructional methods such as cyberlearning”. Sharing expensive research equipment and facilities could particularly achieve efficiencies, it notes.

“Does every university need its own nanotechnology laboratory?” asks James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and one of the 21-strong panel behind the report. “They can share … and its going to change the paradigm.”

Cutting government red tape will also help institutions to reduce costs, says the report, and the federal government should invest in campus cyberinfrastructure to help improve productivity. University research funders should also pay the full costs — both direct and indirect — of the work they fund, it says.

Other recommendations include more business involvement in universities, making it easier for international students and scholars to obtain visas and more federal investment to support young researchers. Universities should also take action to improve postgraduate completion rates, the report says.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington DC, welcomes the report. “Many universities had already begun efficiency programmes out of necessity, but clearly we need to do a better job,” he says.


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