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Addressing The Unprecedented Challenges Facing U.S. Research Universities Today

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- The Research Universities Futures Consortium, a group of 25 leading U.S. public and private research universities, announced today the findings of a new study: The Current Health and Future Well-Being of the American University . The study, funded by Elsevier, outlines the critical challenges faced by U.S. research universities today and calls for collaborative action, suggesting a shift of focus towards productivity. It also identifies the need for better information and cohesive strategies to address these challenges effectively in order to sustain U.S. competitive advantage.

U.S. Research Universities are at a critical juncture. American Research Universities are facing combined pressures of declining funding, increasing competition, intensifying compliance requirements, and loss of political and public confidence in the value of academic research.  At the same time, the expectations for scientific research to produce solutions to today's global challenges have never been higher.

The study, led by Dr. Brad Fenwick, professor and former Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, conducted in depth interviews with the research leaders of 25 leading research universities. A day-long report development workshop was conducted at a national meeting in Washington DC to review the findings and discuss preliminary solutions.

The study reveals the following core challenges:
  1. HYPERCOMPETITION AND COMPLEXITY: Scarcity of resources, relative to the demand for them, has engendered a hypercompetitive environment and increased the difficulty of managing academic research activities.
  2. COMPLIANCE AND INDIRECT COST RECOVERY: The growing number of regulations, reporting requirements and unfunded mandates have exacerbated institutional stress and increased pressure on administration while diverting valuable faculty time from research.
  3. RESEARCH QUALITY AND IMPACT: Innovation requires diverse, high quality research. Standard metrics of quality and impact that reliably reflect the complexity and nuances of today's research need to be developed by the academic research community in partnership with key stakeholders. Such metrics will provide more transparency and enable more effective management of research to improve productivity and research outcomes.
  4. PLANNING AND DECISION SUPPORT: Enabling the highest impact research requires current and predictive data to assess programs, and to evaluate key opportunities in a funding-constrained environment. Strategic decision making requires credible local, national and international data.
  5. VALUE OF THE RESEARCH UNIVERSITY:  The value of the research university in serving society, contributing to local economies, and promoting national innovation and security needs to be better communicated. 
  6. FRAGILITY OF RESEARCH ADMINISTRATION AND LEADERSHIP: The complexity and fragility of the academic research administrative enterprise and leadership responsibilities is not fully understood or appreciated within the university or by sponsors and stakeholders. Better understanding of and support for research administration and leadership will help institutions to increase the productivity and build competitive advantage.

"The cooperative nature of this effort provides confidence that the findings represent the most pressing issues that threaten the ability of research universities to create new knowledge, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers of the highest caliber," said Dr. Fenwick. "Our next step is to focus our attention on the development of realistic and sustainable solutions.  We look forward to joining forces with the National Research Council and their study on the same topic."

The study supports the need to increase the productivity of research conducted at U.S. universities. Its findings suggest collaborative action is required to address some of the key challenges such as the burden of compliance, erosion of public support of academic research as well as strengthening of the research program development and administration. Furthermore, they outline how standard metrics, and current and forward-looking data, would play a critical role to realize this.  Finally, U.S. academia could benefit from a cohesive research strategy, supporting a national research and innovation agenda. The Consortium intends to explore and develop these preliminary recommendations further during a subsequent phase.

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