Manhattan Chamber of Commerce 2009 New Yorker of the Year: “University Research: Transforming Lives”

November 5, 2009 | Speeches and Testimony

Thank you. I am deeply appreciative of this honor and this opportunity to spend some time with you this morning.

I imagine that some of you drove here this morning, just as you usually drive to work. I’m sure you use a seatbelt, possibly even a GPS.

Every day at work, you probably use the Internet. I’ll bet you Google. Several times.

You undoubtedly visit grocery stores, where your purchases are now easily scanned.

And you surely have friends or family members who have had an MRI or laser cataract surgery, or received chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment.

I’m guessing that you watch cable television, where you can check Doppler radar for the weather or even hear about the latest spacecraft sent to the moon.

All of these things have something in common: they come to you courtesy of our country’s universities. These and so many more inventions, discoveries, and advances are the result of research conducted at universities. Whether you’ve visited your local university or not, whether you understand what’s happening in those labs or not, you have directly benefited from their research. In fact, your life, and the lives of practically everyone you know, is immeasurably improved because of that research.

University research impacts every aspect of our lives: health care, communication, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, energy, the environment. It has led to the polio vaccine (thanks to the work of Jonas Salk, a City College alumnus), insulin, the electron microscope, ultrasound, pacemakers, MRI technology, computers, the development of the Internet, search engines, traffic management, dog vaccines, financial instruments and risk-management software, rocket fuel, plexiglass, radiation and cancer therapy, and high-definition digital optics, to name but a few.

These discoveries have come about through a unique team effort. It requires highly educated faculty who have the facilities, support, and time to pursue new inquiries. It requires students and postdoctoral researchers who are equally interested in these questions and skilled to help answer them. It requires a government willing to support the pursuit of new knowledge and its translation to commercialization. And it requires businesses and investors willing to take the risk of bringing new ideas to market.

As our country transitions from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, the need for the highly skilled, entrepreneurial teams that fuel discovery is becoming more urgent. Today, we must be ever more mindful that access to a quality education is a sine qua non of a healthy and vibrant citizenry.

Yet over the past decade, and particularly in the last few years, public higher education has been assaulted by the shortsightedness of disinvestment—at the very moment when we need the reverse of that trend, when we must prepare students to compete for the most promising jobs and allow businesses to flourish through a constant flow of creative professionals. Now is not the time to put on the brakes; now is the time to accelerate.

The United States has a history of ambitious and far-sighted support for academic research and advanced learning. A line can be traced from 1862, when the National Academy of Sciences was created and Morrill Act was passed, which encouraged the creation of universities and agricultural research; and from there to the collaborative relationship between government and science in World War II, when university research helped develop radar, protective gear, and medical drugs; and from there to the growth of research spurred by cold-war concerns and the launch of Sputnik; and to the 1980s, when the Bayh-Dole Act allowed recipients of federal funds to realize the gains from commercializing the products that result from research.

That federal investment has paid off handsomely. Research universities are engines of prosperity, generating economic growth, thousands of new jobs, and the services and tools that companies need. Stanford’s spinoff companies include Google, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Yahoo. UC Berkeley research has led to almost 2,000 inventions, and its alumni have founded 250 companies. The University of Michigan has licensed close to 50 start-up companies in the last five years alone. And here at CUNY, with our Decade of Science initiative, our new Macaulay Honors College, our exciting new Graduate School of Journalism, and our most recent institution, the CUNY School of Public Health, we, too, will be contributing to the richness of our city. But we all need to do more.

So this morning, I’d like to propose that on this 200th anniversary of the year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, we honor him and his foresight in signing the Morrill Act in 1862—an act of unshakable belief in the power of advanced learning at a time when the very survival of a unified nation seemed shaky at best. Today, let’s reinvest in public higher education, when our country most needs the catalyst of new thinking, new discoveries, new industries, and new entrepreneurs.

Public colleges and universities educate almost 80% of our country’s students, developing generations of entrepreneurs, scientists, health-care professionals, and small-business owners. CUNY alone has almost twice as many students than the entire Ivy League. But today, we are seeing a regression of public support for public universities. Nationwide, between 1987 and 2006, the average share of public universities’ operating revenues from state sources dropped from 57% to less than 41%. While countries around the world are eagerly investing in higher education—encouraging students to enroll in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and encouraging faculty to be productive researchers—public universities in the United States are struggling. As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted, in Asia, 20% of students major in engineering; in Europe, 13% do; but in the United States, only 4% of college graduates major in engineering. And in just one decade, 1995 to 2005, published articles in science and engineering grew by over 16% in China—while in the United States they grew by just 0.6%.

When research productivity slows, when graduation rates of science and engineering students lag, our country’s innovation slumps, too. New York Times business and economic writer David Leonhardt has observed that “[c]ountries that educate more of their citizens tend to grow faster than similar countries that do not. The same is true of states and regions within this country….[I]ncome gains tend to come after the education gains.”

The decline of support for public higher education and the resulting stagnation is nothing less than a national security crisis. The scientific leadership that has for so long fueled this country’s growth is at risk—and we watch it wither away at our own peril. We need more scientists, engineers, and technological innovators. And, as Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has argued so persuasively, we need to develop the talents of all of our citizens, especially the “under-represented majority”: the women, minorities, and persons with disabilities who are so inadequately represented in the scientific disciplines. The naming of a record five women Nobel Prize winners this year—in economics, literature, medicine, and chemistry—will, I hope, further encourage the development of the talent waiting to be discovered in our schools.

This regression of support was the reason that a few years ago I proposed a new financing model for public higher education, one that spreads the responsibility for funding. It’s called the CUNY Compact, and it delineates a partnership between state government and the University—with state government supporting basic operations at the University, and the institution itself, through tuition, productivity measures, and philanthropy, supporting investments at the University. The compact recognizes that states are spread thin financially but should support public higher education at a base operating level.

But increasingly, our states may need federal help to meet even the modest goals of the compact. Today, desperate state governments continue to slash budgets—and education continues to suffer. Economist Paul Krugman recently wrote about job losses in state and local education—143,000 in the past five months—and noted with deep concern that education is a sector that should normally grow, even during a recession. The University of California system, long a flagship public system, has seen its state support cut by nearly 20 percent in the last year.

That’s why I’m calling for a federal presence in the CUNY Compact. With the federal government as a stakeholder in a national compact for public higher education, the partnership between government and education that has historically fueled innovation in this country can be reinvigorated. Metrics will have to be developed to determine how public colleges and universities can access federal resources. These resources would have as their goal the maintenance of the fundamental mission of public higher education: to offer educational access and opportunity to the greatest number of students while contributing to our knowledge through advanced research.

It’s why I applaud a recent proposal by the chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley to enact a 21st-century version of the Morrill Act. Their plan would allow some of the country’s great public research and teaching universities to receive basic operating support and endowment fund matches from both federal and state governments.

Such investment is critical. President Lincoln recognized that innovative ideas, and the educated citizenry to develop them, were fundamental to achieving the vision for this country. America’s best resource is still its people. Today, it’s time to invest in them, to develop the talents of our future inventors, our future Nobel Prize winners. The United States is the only one of the 30 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose 25 to 34 year-olds are less educated than its 55 to 64 year-olds. That’s unconscionable—an alarm bell for anyone interested in our future prosperity.

We must keep our universities healthy. I say this not because I run one but because our society can’t move forward without the work that they do. As President Obama has said, “Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result.” So as a fellow New Yorker, I implore you: let’s work together—government, businesses, and universities—to invest in our futures.

Thank you.