The Association of American Universities (AAU), the association of 60 leading U.S. research universities, calls on presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to promote policies that foster innovation, enhance college affordability, attract and retain top international talent, and make the federal investments in research and higher education more efficient.
Such policies would enhance our nation’s economic and national security, improve our quality of life, and ensure that America maintains its global leadership.
Our country faces extraordinary long-term challenges that we cannot solve unless we address four critical areas: enhancing innovation, ensuring that college is affordable, strengthening the talent pipeline, and making the regulation of higher education and research more efficient. We must nurture the ideas and discoveries that lead to innovation. Further, we must support and welcome talent from every part of our society and around the world, including by ensuring that students in need have sufficient financial aid. To ensure that universities can carry out their role in enhancing innovation and talent, the federal government must reform the regulation of university education and research activities to make them more efficient and cost-effective.
Following are the four policy areas we believe candidates must address:
Keep the United States the Global Innovation Leader
The United States has for many decades been the global leader in science and innovation. That leadership is needed now more than ever as our nation and the world face extraordinary scientific and societal challenges. Our continuing leadership, and the solutions to those challenges, require a new era in federal research investment. Yet while other nations such as China and Korea are dramatically increasing their investments in research and development as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. rate of investment is stagnating.
We strongly support the call by Innovation: An American Imperative for sustained four-percent annual real growth in research funding for key federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Department of Defense, and NASA. Cross-cutting, multi-agency initiatives that take advantage of scientific opportunities are a proven and effective way to use research across the sciences – physical, biological, social – to address national challenges.
The United States also must continue to recognize the importance of the government-industry-university partnership. Strong working relationships between government, industry, and universities have resulted in cutting-edge research making its way from the laboratory to the marketplace. While not all basic scientific research can or should be commercialized, it is important to know if there is a market for some research discoveries. Thus, the federal government should invest in early stage proof-of-concept funding, as well as in programs such as NSF’s Innovation-Corp. NSF’s I-Corp program has been instrumental in providing faculty researchers and graduate students with the entrepreneurial training needed to move research from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Finally, to ensure that the federal government supports the best science, the next President should issue an executive order reaffirming merit-based peer review as the primary method of evaluating research grant proposals.
Ensure That College is Affordable for All Americans
It is the collective responsibility of the federal government, state governments, and colleges and universities to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their economic status, have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education. The federal government must continue to invest in student financial aid programs that provide grants and work-study jobs to low- and middle-income students.
In particular, we urge the restoration of the year-round Pell Grant to help low-income students attend college and reduce their time to degree. We support strong tax provisions that encourage saving for higher education (such as Sec. 529 Education Savings Plans), help students and families pay for college (such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit), and assist borrowers as they repay student loans (such as the Student Loan Interest Deduction).
We are also concerned about the erosion of benefits for graduate and professional students. We support reforms to the interest rates and other terms of the federal student loans available to these students.
State governments, too, should devote greater financial and other resources to higher education in order to minimize tuition increases. Institutions have an important role to play, as well, by offering substantial financial aid to needy students, being continually aggressive in pursuing cost-saving strategies, and employing technology, when appropriate, to provide high quality, affordable higher education.
Nurture American Talent and Reform Immigration Laws to Attract and Keep Top International Talent
The U.S. must expand its ability to cultivate homegrown talent, particularly in STEM fields. In addition, this nation of immigrants has always thrived on the infusion of talented men and women from other countries who have grown up here or chosen to study, work, and live here. The nation’s research universities have served as magnets for this talent, and our country has reaped the extraordinary benefits of their contributions.
We believe the nation should enact comprehensive immigration reform and encourage the next president to make it a priority. We support legislation to gradually phase out the seven-percent-per-country cap limitation for employment-based green cards and replace it with a first-come, first-serve system for qualified highly skilled immigrants. This would enable immigrants from countries that send large numbers of talented immigrants, such as China and India, to obtain a green card without having to wait a decade or longer.
We also encourage the Administration to work with Congress to enact a new immigration law that establishes a clear pathway to citizenship for children of immigrants and advanced STEM degree graduates from U.S. colleges and universities. We need to ensure that the most talented foreign-born, U.S.-educated individuals have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens and contribute to America’s economy and workforce.
To bolster our homegrown talent, we must also support the continuation of innovative education programs, undergraduate scholarships, and graduate traineeships and fellowships, particularly in critical STEM fields. This includes promoting policies and programs aimed at ensuring accessibility, inclusiveness, and diversity in higher education.
Reduce Costly, Duplicative Regulation of Higher Education and Research
Many federal regulations and reporting requirements that affect universities’ research and education activities are well intentioned, but the cumulative burden imposed by the many layers of regulations have made them increasingly dysfunctional and, in some instances, counterproductive. Moreover, universities are the only entities conducting research for the federal government that face an artificial cap of 26 percent on reimbursements for the regulatory compliance and administrative costs associated with that research. The cap forces universities to take resources from other parts of their budgets to cover these compliance costs.
To help research universities carry out their missions on behalf of the nation, the next president should work with Congress to harmonize, streamline, and, when possible, eliminate unnecessary and duplicative regulations and reporting requirements affecting this critical work. Specifically, the President should take immediate actions to implement recommendations made in reports issued in in the past two years by the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education , The National Academies’ Committee on Federal Research Regulations and Reporting Requirements , and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The costs of inefficient regulations are not only financial. Such regulations also reduce faculty productivity by diverting time from research and teaching. For example, a 2007 study by the Federal Demonstration Partnership showed that 42 percent of faculty time spent on conducting federally funded research was actually for administrative duties, and a follow-up survey showed similar results. Both studies show that a sizeable portion of those administrative duties is attributable to compliance with federal regulations.
As GAO has said, some progress has been made, but more can be done by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to standardize requirements across agencies and postpone certain requirements imposed on researchers before they are awarded grants. GAO added that OMB also should address requirements—such as those pertaining to conflict of interest and that require multiple quotations for small grant purchases —that “limit universities’ flexibility to allocate administrative resources toward oversight of areas at greatest risk of improper use of research funds.”
Universities must also make the efficiency of their own operations a top priority. They must pursue cost-saving measures in research as well as in education to ensure that they are able to carry out their missions effectively and to be good stewards of the tax dollars and other funding with which they are entrusted.
These should not be partisan issues. They are goals that both candidates should be able to agree on. For the sake of America’s future, it is our hope that both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump will place a high priority on these issues as candidates, and that come January 20, 2017, our next president will begin to address them.