December 15, 2009 | CUNY Matters Columns
Remember the Beatles’ song, “A Day in the Life?” “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head”? Let’s imagine a day in your life.
You woke up, fell out of bed—and brushed with fluoride toothpaste. You gulped an electrolyte sports drink after your workout. You drove to work, seatbelt in place, GPS plotting a route.
At work, you checked your e-mail and Googled (several times). You told a co-worker about your daughter’s high school biology project: not frog dissection, but sequencing brine shrimp DNA. Buying lunch, you were surprised that the scanner read that crumpled bar code. On the way home, you stopped at the hospital, where your father was feeling fine after laser cataract surgery that morning. At home, you convinced your son to put aside his video game and walk the puppy, which just had its shots.
On TV, Doppler radar predicted rain. A spacecraft smashed into the moon, seeking water. You surfed cable stations, thankful that the kids’ TV was V-chip-protected. And turning off the light, you marveled at the world you live in.
All of the inventions in this day resulted from research conducted at universities. Health care, communication, transportation, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, energy, the environment: none would be the same without academic research. Consider the polio vaccine (thanks to CUNY alumnus Jonas Salk), insulin, the electron microscope, ultrasound, pacemakers, MRIs, computers, the Internet, search engines, traffic management, dog vaccines, and cancer therapy, to name a few.
Academic research depends on highly educated faculty with the facilities, support, and time to pursue ideas; skilled students and postdoctoral researchers; government support for such inquiry and its translation to commercialization; and businesses and investors willing to take a risk to bring new ideas to market.
Government support is critical. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, enabling the development of public universities, and Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences. During World War II, government-funded university research developed radar, medical drugs, and atomic weapons. Post-Sputnik, Washington pumped money into research. And in the 1980s, the Bayh-Dole Act allowed federal grant recipients to benefit by commercializing the products of their research.
That federal investment has paid off handsomely. Research universities are engines of prosperity, generating economic growth, jobs, and the services and tools that companies need. Public institutions educate almost 80% of U.S. students.
Yet between 1987 and 2006, the average share of public universities’ operating revenues from state sources dropped from 57% to less than 41%. Meanwhile, other countries are eagerly investing in higher education, particularly in sciences, technology, engineering and math. Take engineering—the choice of 20% of students in Asia, 13% in Europe, but just 4% in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. From 1995 to 2005, published articles in science and engineering grew by over 16% in China—and by just 0.6% in the United States.
When research productivity slows, when science and engineering graduation rates lag, our country’s innovation slumps, too.
President Lincoln recognized that the future depends on an educated citizenry. What would Lincoln say, 200 years after his birth, when the United States is the only one of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose 25-to-34-year-olds are less educated than its 55-to-64-year-olds?
Today, more than ever, our country must encourage advanced learning and advanced research. Robust government support of public universities like CUNY is critical to maintaining a partnership that has fostered the nation’s innovation and improved its quality of life. It is truly an investment in our future.