Research Universities and the Public Good
Discovery for an Uncertain Future
Jason Owen-Smith



Knowledge, Infrastructure, and the Need for Change

RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES ARE KEYSTONES in the nation’s “knowledge infrastructure”1 and the core of what former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and prominent geneticist Eric Lander call “the miracle machine . . . powered by federal investments in science and technology.” There’s a problem, though: “too few people—in government or in the public—understand”2 how that machine works. This book seeks to change that by describing how public investments in research-intensive universities create and sustain a system that helps keep our nation and our world poised to shape and respond to an uncertain future.

Research universities are a kind of social insurance: “Pay the money in and if nothing happens, great! You get to know more about the universe. But if something does you are ready.”3 They help insure our future because their history, their organization, and the public support on which they depend make them sources of knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities, industries, and regions, and hubs connecting all the far-flung parts of society. The chapters that follow elaborate on these three metaphors to explain how research universities keep us ready to take advantage of opportunities and to address problems we don’t know we have yet.

The ideas presented here are meant to help us think and talk more clearly about how our research institutions increase well-being and keep us prepared for a complicated future. That’s important because the language we are currently using—a rhetoric that emphasizes market responsiveness, productive efficiency, and individual returns on investment for students—is profoundly unsuited to accurately explaining the true public value of research universities and their need for ongoing public support.

This book is about a very small slice of higher education that does an immense amount of important work. I focus my attention primarily on the research component of the university knowledge mission, which also includes transmission through teaching and learning and dissemination via public service. It’s hard to know where precisely to draw the line between research-intensive and more teaching-focused campuses, but consider the fact that the U.S. Department of Education identified 5,071 degree-granting higher-education institutions that awarded federal financial aid in 2015.4 About 2.8 percent of those colleges and universities (141) did at least $100 million of research and development (R&D) in the same year.5

Those 141 campuses accounted for just over 89 percent of all academic R&D in 2015.6 They are located in forty-five states and the District of Columbia. This group offers one important proxy for what I mean when I talk about public and private research universities.7 The academic research enterprise in the United States is largely defined by work that public investments support on about 3 of every 100 college and university campuses. Because I begin with research, I emphasize this small but unique class of higher-education institutions.

It is not really a good time to be one of those universities. Institutions that combine teaching at all levels with public service and substantial research are expensive, complicated, and hard to understand. They are also flashpoints for political and cultural conflict. In the last thirty years public research universities have faced state divestment, which has accelerated dramatically since the great recession. The result, in the words of Louisiana State University president F. King Alexander, is that institutions like his “have taken a decade’s worth of hits.”8 Declines in support from states go hand in hand with increasing tuition and fees.

In the same time period, federal support for research has declined in real terms, again striking our public research institutions. Prosperous private institutions also feel the pinch as federal grants fall short of covering the full cost of the research they support. Universities generally receive far less than the overhead reimbursement rates they negotiate with the federal government. At MIT, for instance, vice president for research Maria Zuber notes, “We lose money on every piece of research we do.”9 The result on both public and private campuses is the need to cross-subsidize the costs of the research and teaching aspects of the university’s knowledge mission.

In 2005, federal grants accounted for just under 64 percent of science and engineering research expenditures at academic institutions; by 2015 that number had dropped to just over 55 percent.10 States, corporations, and private foundations are not rushing to fill the gap. Instead, universities themselves are making up the difference, sometimes with the help of philanthropically minded individuals. In the same time period, the percentage of science and engineering R&D funded by universities themselves grew to nearly $1 of every $4 spent. But the possible sources of funds that allow universities to directly support academic research are limited.11 Among the universities that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), for instance, research grants are the largest source of revenue followed by tuition and fees.12 For both public and private universities, instruction and research are the number 1 and number 2 costs.13

The result of all of this is that research-intensive universities find themselves in a bind because of their dual focus on research and teaching. The situation is worst on public university campuses, which educate the plurality of four-year students (28 percent, more than 3.5 million).14 Private universities are also under pressure. But because they never relied on state appropriations, because they enroll far fewer students, because they tend to have more substantial endowments, and because they face less scrutiny over their tuition charges, their situation is somewhat less dire.

Regardless, the decade since the great recession has accelerated financial trends that put significant pressure on our nation’s public and private research universities. These circumstances “create unprecedented challenges in managing finances at research universities and are legitimate threats to the nation’s basic research capability.”15 The situation seems likely to worsen as a new federal budget unveiled by the Trump administration proposes drastic cuts to research funding.16

In defending a nearly 20 percent proposed cut to the National Institutes of Health, then secretary of health and human services Tom Price took aim at already insufficient indirect-cost reimbursements.17 Secretary of education Betsy DeVos issued a clarion call against “the education establishment” that seems to be borne out in significant cuts to higher education.18 In defending proposed budget cuts, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said “one of the questions we asked was ‘Can we really ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?’19

Mulvaney was speaking explicitly of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. All three of those support work on many university campuses. Regardless, the drastic cuts proposed for science agencies that fund the bulk of academic research and for student aid suggest that many policy makers feel that research universities and their key activities are not things we can and should ask taxpayers to support.

That belief is wrong and deeply destructive. Understanding why that is and how it matters requires that we shift the typical focus of books and commentaries on the state of higher education. I do that in three ways.

First, I am concerned only with a very small but exceptionally important part of the entire ecosystem of higher education: research-intensive universities. Second, where most analyses of universities start with students and ask why we should do research in institutions devoted to education, I flip the question to begin with research. In so doing, I ask about the benefit of educating large numbers of students in organizations dedicated to creating, conserving, interpreting and adapting knowledge. Finally, I shift focus away from the private returns that individuals realize from their education or that funders see from particular grants to a collective calculus that emphasizes our universities’ contribution to the general welfare of the nation and, ultimately, the world.

Consider a small sampling of recent books about universities, which all emphasize the need to increase private returns and propose moves to (1) unbundle research, teaching, and service and even the components of degree programs; (2) streamline the organization of universities to address current market needs; (3) reduce or eliminate programs that don’t have clear and immediate applications to the problems we know we have now; and (4) make the whole institution more responsive to market discipline.20

These proposals are mind-numbingly wrong because they make two fundamental mistakes. First, they fail to distinguish institutions that do significant research and graduate training from those whose primary or sole purpose is education. In so doing, these proposals threaten to damage the national capabilities for discovery and innovation that have grown up within and across our research universities since the end of World War II.

Second, they mistake the value of research universities for the return on individual investments in them. Doing so reinforces our knee-jerk reliance on the language of markets and market return to explain and justify investments in an institution that is valuable because it is a public good and produces them. The tendency to emphasize individual returns is also apparent in political discourse pertaining to both research and education.

In the former case, congressional action has pushed the need for the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify each individual grant in terms of its contributions to concrete national interests.21 In the educational realm, a bill recently reintroduced into the Senate authorizes income share agreements (ISAs), which allow private investors to pick up the costs of an individual student’s education in return for a fixed percentage of their later earnings.22 Both of these moves exemplify destructive tendencies. One reduces the value of research to the return expected on individual grants at the time when they are funded. The other reduces the value of education to the earnings potential of individual students at the time when they enroll.23

All these moves are, at least rhetorically, driven by a concern with appropriate, effective use of public funds. Universities and their occupants must steward public investments by attending closely to the success of both projects and students. But the thing we are actually investing in when we put taxpayer money into research institutions is not the outcome for an individual or a grant. It is a set of organizations and networks that create and sustain capabilities that are found nowhere else and that contribute important things to our ability to foresee, create, and respond to our collective future.

The purpose of the university is knowledge. Its goals are collective rather than individual. Public support makes it able to identify and respond to problems our society does not yet know it has. In a political environment skeptical of hard-to-measure outcomes, public and private research universities, which both depend on extensive public investments, are very much at risk. Weakening them through inattention or through poorly devised policies that jeopardize their strengths in an effort to streamline their work will jeopardize our future.

I draw on economic sociology, organizational, and network theory to explain how research universities are unique components of our national and global system of innovation. Their distinctive features as sources, hubs, and anchors allow them to consistently innovate in response to new problems and opportunities. Put another way, universities help keep contemporary society able to develop and pursue knowledge that contribute dramatically to the health, wealth, and wellbeing of U.S. and global citizens. Public support, particularly federal research funding, is essential to these capabilities.

But where most efforts to explain the value of university research focus explicitly on publications or, more commonly, patenting and licensing, I choose instead to emphasize the work of people and networks. Research investments in our nation’s campuses enable the complicated and uncertain work of discovery. That work yields immediate economic benefits as faculty investigators hire the people and buy the stuff necessary for research work. Economic stimulus is not the purpose of research, but it does contribute to the university’s role as an anchor. More importantly, the work of research creates and sustains complex collaboration networks that are distinctive on different campuses. Those networks are the social grounds for discovery and training. They are the main thing that allows universities to be a continual source of knowledge and skills.

Intercampus variation in networks helps make sure that the academic research enterprise as a whole is capable of responding to new opportunities and needs that we may not be able to articulate. As discoveries and trained people leave the institution for destinations across the nation and the world, they make our universities into hubs: centrally positioned organizations in the large networks that constitute our society and economy.24 These three interdependent features of the contemporary university account for both its immense success and the challenges we have faced in explaining it to skeptics outside (and sometimes inside) the academy.

While I strive to be clear-eyed, my view of the research university is essentially positive. This is not to say that I think research universities (or for that matter any higher-education institutions) are perfect. Indeed, their list of imperfections is long. They may not be as effective as they could be at the work of education;25 they are not always the route to social mobility we imagine them to be; nor are they as safe, inclusive, and supportive as we might like.26 The list of problems could go on, encompassing casualized academic labor, challenges of scientific replication, and the potential dangers and conflicts associated with commercialized research. When I say my view of research universities is essentially positive, I am not suggesting there is nothing to apologize for or improve. I am arguing that we too easily overlook (or undersee) the value unique to these institutions.

Despite all their problems and despite the skepticism they face, research universities remain the most impressive machine for developing, conserving, interpreting, teaching, and using knowledge ever to be found in human history. Current popular and scholarly languages for discussing universities miss the mark by conceptualizing them primarily as uncomfortable clusters of clashing activities and proposing trade-offs that emphasize one part of the mission at the expense of the others.

They are complicated and often contradictory. But treating these large institutions holistically, with the assumption that their prime and guiding purpose is to work with and develop knowledge for the collective good, comes closer to the truth. I hope to correct the prevailing, overwhelmingly negative, discourse around higher education and public support for research. Focusing specifically on research and considering all other aspects of university life to be in service to the knowledge mission clearly shows how academic work on a small but essential set of campuses consistently has broader social and economic effects.

Research universities are the only institutions in our society that do this set of things. Their publicly funded infrastructure for research, teaching, and service contributes dramatically to the general welfare of our society by creating and sustaining capabilities to create new possibilities and respond to currently unknown problems. That is why they are a central piece of our nation’s infrastructure and why we should ask, and expect, coal miners and single moms as well as professors, well-to-do professionals, wealthy CEOs, and cash-rich corporations to support them. Understanding why that is requires that we rethink our view of the research university, beginning with our understanding of research itself.


1. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Public Research Universities: Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2016).

2. Eric S. Lander and Eric E. Schmidt, “America’s ‘Miracle Machine’ Is in Desperate Need of, Well, a Miracle,” Washington Post, May 5, 2017,

3. Andrew Rodgers, “Trump’s Budget Forgets That Science Is Insurance for America,” Wired, May 25, 2017,

4. Figures calculated from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

5. Figures calculated from the NSF Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges, accessed via the WebCaspar data system at

6. In order to fill out the remaining 10 percent or so of R&D spending reported by NSF, we would need to include an additional 468 campuses. Even if we were to consider every institution reporting R&D spending, we would still only be looking at about 12 percent of degree-granting higher-education institutions.

7. Another view: Nearly 4.4 percent (222) were in the highest-research-activity (115) and higher-research-activity (107) categories of doctorate-granting institutions as rated by the 2015 Carnegie Classification of Higher Education. So, if we are interested in the subset of campuses that are defined by integration of substantial research, graduate training, and undergraduate training across a wide range of fields, we’re really looking at somewhere between 2.3 percent (115 very-high-research Carnegie institutions) and 4.4 percent (both high-research-activity and very-high-research-activity Carnegie institutions) of all higher-education institutions. I will use the group defined by research expenditures wherever possible, but in some cases, data limitations require me to use another group such as the Carnegie schools.

8. F. King Alexander, interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, 2017,

9. Heidi Ledford, “Keeping the Lights On,” Nature 515 (2014): 327.

10. Data are drawn from the NSF Higher Education Research Expenditures (HERD) survey, available at Data on the detailed sources of all R&D expenditures, not just science and engineering, only began to be tracked by this survey in 2010.

11. Council on Government Relations, “Finances of Research Universities,” June 2014,

12. Ibid., 3.

13. Ibid., 9.

14. Private research universities enroll an additional 840,000 students, bringing the total percentage of students enrolled on research intensive campuses to nearly 35 percent. Data are drawn from the 2015 IPEDS Enrollment Survey for Carnegie high-research-activity and very-high-research-activity campuses, accessed via

15. Council on Government Relations, “Finances of Research Universities,” 26.

16. Science News Staff, “A Grim Budget Day for U.S. Science: Analysis and Reaction to Trump’s Plan,” Science, March 16, 2017,

17. Lev Facher, “Tom Price Defends Proposed Cuts at NIH, Citing ‘Indirect’ Expenses,” STAT News, March 29, 2017,

18. Scott Jaschik, “DeVos vs. the Faculty,” Inside Higher Education, February 24, 2017,

19. Paulina Firozi, “Budget Director: We Can’t Ask Coal Miners or Single Moms to Pay for Public Broadcasting,” The Hill, March 16, 2017,

20. See, for instance, Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead, 2015); Clayton Christianson and Henry Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011); Ryan Craig, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015); Gary Fethke and Andrew Policano, Public No More: A New Path to Excellence for America’s Public Universities (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2012); and Charles Sykes, Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

21. Jeffrey Mervis, “Update: Surprise! Innovation Bill Clears the House, Heads to President,” Science, December 16, 2016,

22. Senate Bill 268, “Investing in Student Success Act of 2017,” 115th Congress, First Session.

23. Walter McMahon, Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

24. Mark Granovetter, Society and Economy: Framework and Principles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

25. Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

26. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Elizabeth A. Armstrong et al., “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape,” Social Problems 53, no. 4 (2006): 483–499; Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).