Vigilant Leadership

Report proposes actions to strengthen the quality of US research universities

The United States has eight of the top ten universities in the world, according to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking. In  another respected list, the Times Higher Education ranking, seven American universities are in the top ten. The ability to maintain this lead, one of the crucial factors ensuring the United States’ unequaled innovative capacity, worries the country’s congress, which commissioned a group of experts from the National Research Council (NRC) to prepare a set of recommendations for maintaining the vitality of the type of higher education institution that does intensive research and transfers knowledge to society.

The result was the report Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security, published last August, which lists actions that must be implemented to preserve the lead (see box). “We can say without reservation that our research universities are, today, the best in the world and an important resource for our nation, yet at the same time, they are in grave danger of not only losing their place of global leadership but of serious erosion in quality,” says the report, which criticizes the loss of funding for public universities in the country and cites China’s emergence as a powerhouse in science and innovation as a threat. Some recommendations seek to ensure that the university system does not lose the characteristics that propelled it in recent decades, such as the ability to attract talented students and researchers from other countries and strengthen partnerships with the private sector, facilitating knowledge transfer and accelerating the innovation process.

But there are also new challenges, such as how to produce more with budgets that are not growing as quickly as in the past. Another important topic is the emphasis on reducing regulations imposed on research universities to ensure that they spend less energy on bureaucracy, and are thus more productive. “The current regulatory environment can limit basic research,” said US Rep. Mo Brooks, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the House of Representatives, who, in response to the NRC report, submitted a request to the government to review a series of circulars and bureaucratic requirements imposed on universities.

The United States has not prioritized reinforcing the quality of its best universities. In a special issue of the journal Nature published in October, leaders of institutions, programs and research funding agencies from eight countries suggested measures that should be taken to stimulate research in their countries in the next decade. FAPESP’s scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, was among them. He proposed that the Brazilian government develop a plan to support the implementation of excellence programs in about a dozen universities, enabling them to place among the top 100 in the world in a decade. “The country already has highly selective universities, which could become world class,” said Brito Cruz.