Damaged Pipelines and the Future of Innovation

One of the strongest arguments for shoring up the nation’s public universities, increasing graduate offerings, and expanding the role of expansive research plans in determining institutional priorities is the effect that investments like these have on America’s ability to innovate. It’s an argument that rings true, but as facts accumulate, it is beginning to look like public universities are not doing much to secure the future of innovation in the United States.

The nation’s supply of scientists and engineers is fed by a pipeline that extends from the undergraduate programs of colleges and universities to the graduate programs that educate the next generation of PhDs.  The massive investment in research at public universities should have had some impact on the health of this pipeline, but it has not.

A couple of weeks ago, I cited a depressing  CCAP ranking of universities that placed many of the country’s most highly respected research universities near the bottom of value-oriented rankings.  Now there is a new survey from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute that adds more details to this portrait of failed priorities.

On a per capita basis the schools whose undergraduate programs are responsible for the most PhDs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines are the ones that are also highly regarded by students and alumni for the value they deliver.  There are only three public institutions in the top fifty: UC Berkeley (39), William and Mary (45), and a surprisingly strong 15th place showing for tiny New Mexico Tech.  Who is at the top? Caltech is number 1.  Private research universities like MIT, Princeton, and Chicago are also in the top ten. But so are schools with virtually no research funding.  Harvey Mudd is ranked number 2.  Reed, Swarthmore, and Carleton — all liberal arts colleges — are among the top ten as well. Many in the top fifty are small, but there are a couple of  large institutions like Berkeley (35,000) and Cornell (21,000).  About half enroll between 10,000 and 15,000 students.  All are highly selective, but so are the most of the public universities that are members of the AAU.

In a recent post, I asked “Why universities do research?”  This data makes the question even more pointed. The largest consumers of federal research dollars should be directing their energies to insuring the health of the STEM research pipeline.  All of the schools in the top fifty manage to do it — some with little or no help from the federal government.  So it makes perfect sense to ask what is going on at the other institutions.  I have my own ideas — and I talk about them in my book – but I am also interested in hearing your thoughts.  Is this another indication of a damaged pipeline?

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