Elections Central: New Congress, New Appropriations for Research?

Jeff Mauritzen

Jeff Mauritzen

The new Congressional political mosaic will affect the future of several policy decisions, from affecting the makeup of the Supreme Court, to affecting the future of research and development in the United States. Basic research is largely conducted not in the corporate world, but in academic and government funded laboratories. Given that state and federal funding for universities has been in decline for years, how are universities making up the difference? The answer might be your college tuition.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest and most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for policy research in the United States, published a report this year that found that states have dramatically reduced their contributions to general public higher education. In an analysis brief last year, the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization, published that states’ contributions to higher education have declined by 34% per full-time equivalent student.

Federal funding has not been able to make up the deficit created by declines in state funding for the general operations of public universities. Government funding is split into two types: state funding pays for the general operations of a public institution, whereas federal funding provides financial assistance to individual students and specific research projects.

Funding for research specifically has also been in decline. The 2009 American Recovery Act added $20 billion to the federal budget for research and development, leading to an apex of $160 billion in federal funding in 2010. The 2016 fiscal year budget provides for $145.2 billion allocated to research and development, continuing a long-run decline.

A public university depends on income from government grants and subsidies, state appropriations, revenue from gifts, and returns on the university endowment. The difference between the sum of expenses the university expects to incur and its income is made up by student tuition. In his book Going Broke By Degree, Richard Vedder explains that tuition pricing is set by expenditure decisions that do not follow market and business tendencies. He writes, “Businesses need to be flexible, to be able to reduce spending to match falling revenues, or to bolster it in areas of high demand,” whereas “in higher education, costs determine revenues, while in for-profit businesses, revenues determine costs.” *

Private universities are not exempt from the aforementioned decline in federal spending. Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels published an article in 2015 where he outlines that young scientists cannot start “their own laboratories, pursue their own research, and advance their own careers in academic science” due to lack of funding. This leads students to abandon their careers in academia, which leads to an evaporation of new discoveries and a lost generation of future leaders in science.

Why does university-level research matter? Research is important because it leads to progress in different areas of our daily lives. To begin, there are two different levels of research: basic and applied. Basic research aims to gather “more complete knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts, without specific applications toward processes or products in mind." Applied research aims to gather “knowledge or understanding necessary for determining the means by which a recognized need may be met,” which then funnels into development. Development is the “systematic use of the knowledge or understanding gained from research, directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, systems, or methods, including design and development of prototypes and processes.”

As you can imagine, funding for research is more likely to be favored when a tangible product is in sight, which comes from applied research because applied research funnels directly into the development stage. The trouble is applied research can’t exist without basic research having been first completed. This poses a problem: tangible results are a big plus for elected representatives come election season. Furthermore, as Michael Hiltzik points out, both sides of the aisle can pick on funding for research “whose thumbnail descriptions they can’t understand or they can make sound ridiculous.”

In a four-part series produced by Boston University, author Art Jahnke draws a very interesting relationship: federal funding for university research is related to the ideological position on how big the government should be. Because Congress decides how much money and what percent of its GDP it is spending on research, and because a significant portion of university funds for research and development come from the federal government, and because [basic] research carried out at the university level drives much of the [applied] research that leads to technological innovation and breakthroughs, the future of American ingenuity could very well rest on the makeup of the next Congress.

Federal funding has been a key driver of important pieces of American history. After large portions of federal funding were slashed because of the stock market crash of 1929 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, concerned with another world war, increased federal funding for research and development. He created the National Defense Research Committee, which was later named the Office of Scientific Research and Development. It would host projects like research on malaria and the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb.

Concerns over the Cold War continued to increase funding for research. The post-World War II years also allowed the United States to focus on mass higher education earlier than other nations. In Financing American Higher Education In the Era of Globalization, the authors write:

This [focus on mass higher education] gave the United States an enormous economic edge for at least one generation. That edge has largely evaporated, and we now face many developed and developing nations whose citizens are achieving high rates of post secondary (or “tertiary”) education. This presents the United States with severe challenges in a knowledge-based world economy. **

There is certainly a need to increase spending for research and development, because more R&D could lead to extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine and technology, among other fields. Furthermore, more general funding for higher education could give the United States a “second economic edge.” The next question at hand becomes: how can we make college accessible and affordable for all Americans?

In an opinion piece for the New York Times Paul Campos outlines a different explanation: the rise in tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education, and that a major factor driving increasing costs is the expansion of university administrations, and a recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators.

Interestingly enough, the Academy of Arts and Sciences reports a contrasting narrative: “To compensate for the decline in state subsidies at a time of increasing enrollment, tuition and fees increased.” Furthermore, an “expanding university administration” may scream negative connotations of inefficiency and bureaucracy if details are not outlined. Some universities have expanded their administrations to include LGBTQ centers, Women’s centers, career counseling, and, among other services, student health counseling- which may include mental health counseling, sexual assault counseling, and medical services, among other services.

Lastly, seven-figure salaries for high-ranking administrators is an accusation that should be applied to each university on a case-by-case basis. Not every university pays its “high-ranking administrators” seven-figure salaries. In some cases, those administrators might put in plenty of work to merit it. We just don’t know unless we dig into each institution individually, but it is something we should be mindful of in any case.

College accessibility is a very important issue for everyone in the United States. The impact this decline in state and federal funding for research and general university operations will have is likely to be reflected in tuition hikes, thus adding another financial hurdle to college accessibility. This decline in funding will also have a long-run effect on America’s economic edge and scientific ingenuity. These effects are just one reason, among many, why our votes, our opinions, and points of view matter on November 8th.

* Vedder, Richard K. Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much. Washington, D.C.: AEI, 2004. Print. Pgs 24-25

** Zumeta, William Mark., et al. Financing American Higher Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education, 2012. Print. Pg 95