Here’s an article at The Atlantic (via the Washington Monthly) that should concern anyone involved in R&D. It’s about the funding problems of many of the large public universities, particularly in the Midwest. Chemists will recognize several historically strong departments in that part of the country – but may also have noted that faculty poaching (always a feature of life in academia) seems to have been increasing over the years. The biggest private universities have, for the most part, been operating on a more stable financial footing (and usually at a much higher baseline) than the schools that have to depend on their state legislatures. And state-level financial problems don’t allow for much optimism about where those funding levels will be going.
As the article points out, there are some large public universities (such as the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia) that get more of their funding privately than from public funds. But Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State, and many others are caught in bad positions. It did not pass without notice when Wisconsin fell out of the top five schools in the NSF research rankings for the first time ever.
A continuing slide like that will be bad news, because a lot of research gets done at these places, in a lot of different fields. That matters to science as a whole, and it matters even more to the universities’ regions themselves, where they (and the companies that have spun off from them) are often the main technology-based employers. The risk is that entire sections of the country find themselves sliding off in a different direction – and as someone who did not exactly grow up in a technological wonderland (Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas in the 1970s), I don’t like the sound of that. We have enough places that feel as if they’re stuck years behind everyone else without creating more of them.
I realize that I’m being a bit self-serving here, because I’m implicitly conflating “lack of any scientific research” with second-rateness, and scientific research happens to be what I do for a living. Convenient! But in these cases, we’re looking at places that really have been large-scale research centers that may be allowed to slide into that second-rateness, which is really shameful. I have the greatest respect for the work being done at the Harvards, Stanfords, and MITs, but I don’t think that we should sort of throw up our hands and allow university science to concentrate in their hands alone. There’s too much to do, for one thing, and the more sets of eyes (and hands) we have working on all these topics, the better off we are. Industrial research at least has the startup route, where small companies come along and tackle problems on their own, but starting your own university is not such an easy task. Keeping the ones we have going would seem to be a better plan.
But even in industry, there’s been a tendency towards just this sort of thing, albeit for different reasons. I write this from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and you cannot throw a rock around this neighborhood without going through some biopharma or tech company’s window. Northern New Jersey and Connecticut are not exactly Pennsylvania coal-mining country, but from a biopharma pespective, they’ve been emptying out pretty thoroughly in favor of a few big concentrations, Boston-Cambridge very prominent among them. This is not good for the places getting emptied, but at least the R&D is still being done somewhere new. But no one’s going to relocate Ohio State to a hipper location; it stands or falls where it is. Letting it and the other big public schools decline gives you the worst of both worlds.
Update: as pointed out in the comments, this problem doesn’t break on strictly geographic lines. The state of California, famously, has severe budget and tax-base problems, and that’s been showing up in the funding of the state’s universities. When there’s turmoil at a chemistry department as historically strong as Berkeley’s, then you do have trouble indeed. What we’re looking at is more of a state-versus-private breakdown, rather than a Midwest-versus-the-coasts one; it just so happens that the Midwest has a lot of big public universities with strong research histories.
Update 2: I also meant to include a note about Neal Stephenson’s memories of growing up in Ames, Iowa, in the atmosphere created by the university (in his introduction to David Foster Wallace’s “Everything and More”). Some of that shows up in this interview as well.