I began to wonder: Are people unaware of the value and range of our more fundamental research and scholarship? Is the often-negative and politicized news coverage of skyrocketing tuition, career preparedness, campus culture, and perception of liberal bias affecting our credibility? Do universities as a whole have a serious public-trust problem?
To find out, I asked USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research to investigate. The center (one of the few polling outfits whose research pointed toward President Trump’s 2016 victory) was able to add some illuminating questions to its "Understanding America" study, an online survey of about 8,000 households across the United States.
We need to show the world what an incredible resource we can offer for solving today's complex problems.I was surprised by what we found. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents had a net positive attitude toward research universities, and more than 60 percent had a positive reaction to basic research, most of which is conducted at universities. Eight out of 10 believe that the government should be funding basic research because it is valuable to improving society — an attitude that has held steady throughout the past four decades.
The survey also asked respondents a series of questions similar to those asked in a 1977 telephone survey aimed at ranking the extent to which a variety of American ideals and institutions have a positive impact on American society. As in 1977, the 2019 survey showed that scientific research ranked second only to hardworking people, and significantly above democracy, availability of capital, private industry and business, and deeply held religious views.
Clearly, the negative and politicized coverage of higher education in general is not driven by a lack of trust in university research. But neither is that appreciation of our research mission translating into university experts’ being top-of-mind when the public looks for solutions to the complex challenges that define this century.
ADVERTISEMENTIn the mid-20th century, physicists, linguists, and mathematicians were known to the American public for the indispensable role they’d played in winning World War II and the Cold War, and in maintaining U.S. hegemony in the world. Professors were thought of as experts first and teachers second.
In the 50 years since that time, the higher-education landscape has changed significantly. The student population has grown much faster than our research infrastructure has. While federal funding for university research as a fraction of GDP has increased by roughly 30 percent since the 1960s, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually has climbed by roughly 300 percent. It makes sense that to meet the proliferation of students, most institutions are focused either primarily or exclusively on teaching.
Only 3 percent of institutions of higher learning today are considered "highly research intensive." That might explain why, based on my cursory examination, significantly less than 10 percent of the articles, op-eds, and conference sessions appearing in the most influential higher-education journals and associations last year had anything to do with research. The critical mission of a research university, that of creating new knowledge, has become overshadowed by that of educating new generations.
The public’s favorable outlook toward university research is good news, but we can’t assume that this appreciation will withstand neglect. It’s easy for people to forget that their iPhones could never have been invented were it not for the esoteric quantum physics that began to be applied 100 years before. And they can be forgiven for not understanding that the most important contributions we make have no obvious application today.
If we want to continue to enjoy the public support that makes scholarship possible, we need to show the world what an incredible resource we can offer for solving today’s complex problems. We need to do a much better job telling the story of our research universities. And the best way to do that is to invite the world to engage with our deep bench of knowledge, talent, creativity, and expertise.
But that presents another challenge. Universities are large and complex places that can be intimidating to the public. We have colleges and professional schools and departments and programs and centers and institutes — each of which has faculty members conducting highly specialized research that can be incomprehensible to a lay audience. Why should we expect that a green business would be able to find the chemist whose new catalysis technique will enable it to halve its waste and double its profits? Why should we expect a city agency to be able to identify the sociologist/economist team that can model the effects of a new tax?
Research universities are the only institutions where the range of expertise and methods needed to overcome pressing challenges is readily available. But for this resource to be most useful to the public, we need to draw back the curtain on our intellectual capacity, cut through red tape, and facilitate connections with leaders in the public and private sectors.
Research universities need to hang out their shingle not just as educators but as innovators. We need to reach out to the business community and to our governments and ask, "If you had access to an expert of any type, what problems could they help you solve?" Americans need to know that they can call on us to work on big, thorny problems.
And they need to know that when they do make the call, we will pick up the phone.
Amber D. Miller is dean of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the University of Southern California.