Defending the Research University

By Maryann P. Feldman

Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery For an Uncertain Future by Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Research Universities and the Public Good provides a strong argument for the importance of research universities. Countering arguments that we should “unbundle” or “disrupt” higher education, Jason Owen-Smith, a well-respected organizational sociologist, makes the case that research universities, though complex and costly, create value for the economy and for society. Owen-Smith summarizes the role of research universities and the issues they face: they serve multiple objectives, including teaching for undergraduate pro­grams, professional degrees, and graduate education; they provide public service and face demands for accountability to the public, because of their nonprofit tax status; they have a mission to commercialize academic research discoveries; and they must operate in an environ­ment of declining public funding and cutthroat competition for grants. Owen-Smith argues that the enduring value of research universi­ties is threefold: they simultaneously act as sources of new knowledge, serve as anchors for regional and national communities, and are hubs that connect disparate parts of society. These distinctive fea­tures allow research universities, more than any other institution in society, to innovate in response to new problems and opportunities. Presenting numerous case studies that show how research universities play these three roles and why they matter, this book offers a fresh and readable defense of the American research university.

The book begins with a discus­sion of how research universities offer a type of insurance that provides for the greater good. By investing in universities, we are guaranteeing our collective future prosperity. Owen-Smith describes universities as networked sources of skilled people and knowledge. Using a metaphor popular in the literature on economic geography, he argues that they also serve as anchors of their local economies, providing cul­tural, social, and economic benefits. Finally, Owen-Smith defines universi­ties as connecting hubs that facilitate the movement of people and ideas.

Owen-Smith further develops these themes in subsequent chapters. The second chapter discusses the organization of research universities and highlights some of the reasons why universities have sometimes struggled to fulfill their promise to transmit knowledge through education and to apply knowledge through public service. Drawing on existing scholarship, Owen-Smith aptly synthesizes the postwar social contract for universities, conclud­ing with a discussion of the inherent tensions and required balance in the decentralized American system, which includes both public and private institutions and increased expectations for relevance. The next three chapters discuss these ideas in greater detail and provide colorful examples and cases.

The final chapter presents four changes that Owen-Smith sees as essential to maintaining the unique role of research universities. He first suggests that universities must reclaim the language of public benefit as a justification for sup­porting academic research—the simple economic idea that the public benefit of research is greater than the returns that can be captured by any individual. The public-good rationale is the usual justification for government support for research. This old argument seems to have lost resonance with many politi­cians and members of the general public, but support will increase, he argues, if universities can better explain the justification for fund­ing academic research. It always strikes me as ironic that even as we recognize that we live in a knowl­edge economy—with universities as the largest suppliers of new knowledge, skilled human capital, and the ability to translate new ideas into practice—support for research universities is not universal. This situation is perhaps related to Owen-Smith’s second recommenda­tion, that universities should act like educational institutions rather than like businesses or venture capitalists. This recommendation is particularly salient in light of Rebecca S. Eisen­berg and Robert Cook-Deegan’s description, in an article published in Daedalus last fall, of universities as the “fallen angels of Bayh-Dole,” referring to their aggressive pursuit of patents following passage of the 1980 act that allowed universities to benefit financially from research supported by government funding. Owen-Smith’s third recommenda­tion—that research universities should be subject to rigorous and systematic scrutiny, with the same transparency and accountability that is standard for our best academic research—might help address the decline in public confidence. Finally, returning to the notion that research universities provide a type of insur­ance, Owen-Smith recommends that, as a nation, we invest in research in order to be prepared for an uncer­tain future.

In sum, these four recommenda­tions lay out an agenda for further discussion that is in keeping with the developing field of science and innovation policy. University research outcomes are difficult to measure, and we need to be skeptical about the adoption of private-sector constructs such as return on invest­ment. Even the careful accounting of university purchasing power and the calculation of economic-multiplier effects attributed to university wages and expenditures detract from the central contribution of research universities.

In Research Universities and the Public Good, Owen-Smith has articulated an expansive case for the support of research universities as a source of value creation in our econ­omy and society. The book is needed especially now given proposed bud­get cuts to the federal agencies that provide the largest share of research funding, which threaten to damage our national capacity for discovery and innovation. Owen-Smith argues that rather than investing in the outcome of any individual grant or project, local, state, and federal gov­ernments should adequately fund the set of organizations and networks that advance and sustain scientific research capabilities. Simply put, the advanced capabilities that research universities provide are not found anywhere else in the economy. Investments in research universities contribute to our ability to create our collective future. Further, public investments should be made to sustain the scale and the diversity of the university system rather than to attempt to identify one efficient route to solving a problem.

The focus of this book is the 141 American research universities that conducted at least $100 mil­lion of research and development. All of the elite institutions in the Association of American Uni­versities are in this group, which represents roughly 3 percent of American colleges and universities but accounts for about 90 percent of all academic research. Although Owen-Smith does not consider the important differences between pub­lic and private research institutions, which are another dimension of variation within American research universities, his book is a valuable addition to the literature on what he refers to as the American aca­demic research enterprise. Research Universities and the Public Good is an easy read at 174 pages, and its extensive footnotes provide the reader with the resources to delve deeper into the topic.

Maryann P. Feldman is the Heninger Distinguished Professor in the department of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an adjunct professor of finance at Kenan-Flagler Business School, and a research director at the UNC Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. Her research and teaching interests focus on innovation, the commercialization of academic research, and the factors that promote technological change and economic growth. Her email address is [email protected].