Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

These institutions have created new technologies and indeed whole new fields of technology, as is illustrated by the new field of genetic engineering. They attract some of the ablest minds from all over the world. Their work is done in cosmopolitan groups, and while individual researchers may come and go, the research projects themselves continue in stable institutions that can assemble the best academic talent that exists worldwide in a given field.

Research and teaching have now become inextricably intertwined in the American research university. From the educational point of view, a critical mission of the university is to teach students how to solve difficult problems at the research frontier. Such research problems are difficult, because if they were not, they would already have been solved; they are novel or they would not be at the frontier. This method of education is carried out by apprenticing students to scientists who themselves are solving difficult problems at the research frontier. Undergraduate education is also strengthened when students are taught by scientists involved in discovering new knowledge firsthand.

Looked at from the point of view of research, the universities collect the ablest minds and provide them with an environment that gives them the freedom and resources to pursue their own ideas. An integral part of this environment is the postgraduate system whereby the leading students apprentice themselves to their mentors and provide the fresh outlook and energies characteristic of inquiring young minds. Such graduate programs generally conclude with a doctoral dissertation, independently conducted, which in itself is an original contribution at the research frontier.

Universities make several contributions to military and civilian technologies. Government agencies and private firms fund much university research to help solve technological problems and to get access to the best understanding that underlies such technologies. University researchers also occasionally provide insights by consulting directly with public- and private-sector R&D programs. Over the long term, however, the rate of technological advance in both sectors may be more seriously affected by the flow of new young talent—trained at the leading edge in relevant scientific disciplines—from universities to employment in military and industrial R&D efforts. The American university is the unique place in our society where new generations of leading scientists and engineers can be produced in sufficient numbers and proficiencies; in order to produce them the research function in the university mission must remain strong.

There are now, however, a number of economic, social, and political strains that, at the very least, will lead to significant changes in the way the system operates and, at worst, will lead to serious impairment of its effectiveness. Federal funding at universities, measured in constant dollars, leveled off about 15 years ago, and thus recent growth in the system has been slight, making it more difficult to replace obsolete equipment and to undertake new, and more expensive, enterprises. Demographic changes have led to a declining college-age population, which, with declining interest in science careers among young people, has raised questions about America’s ability to attract

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement