Our podcast is all about research. Every episode we investigate what scholars have discovered and why it matters. But we’re going to get meta on this episode and look at what makes this research possible—and the dangers of taking it for granted, especially during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barbara Snyder, JD’80, is president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization composed of America’s leading research universities. On this episode, she lays out the case for investing more in academic research, and what we may lose if we don’t.
(Episode published Jan. 14, 2021)
Paul Rand: Big Brains is all about research. What scholars have discovered, what questions drive them and how the research impacts our world. But we haven't talked much about how research comes to be and what makes it possible in the first place.
Barbara Snyder: As other countries have ramped up spending and ramped up the percentage of their GDP that they’re investing in research, we have disinvested in research and I think that’s going the wrong direction.
Paul Rand: This is Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities or AAU.
Barbara Snyder: A group of 63 United States-based research universities, both public and private.
Paul Rand: These universities are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship and some of the most important scientific advancements. But all of that research costs money.
Barbara Snyder: Our member universities earn 61% of all the federal research funding that goes to universities.
Paul Rand: The Association of American Universities advocates for that federal research funding and policies, but Snyder says it’s not always an easy sell. And with extreme partisan divides, it’s getting harder.
Barbara Snyder: Research pays dividends over such a very long time period. Sometimes it’s more difficult to make the case for that than it is for things that people see will benefit them right now. We have to continue to invest in these because this work, while you might not see an instant commercial application for it, is certainly going to be laying the groundwork for things that will change the world and change the United States.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. This episode, the story behind the research, I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: Barbara Snyder was recently named president of the Association of American Universities. And she’s already full of fast facts about the group.
Barbara Snyder: Our 63 American universities are only 2% of all universities in the United States, but we award 43% of all the research doctoral degrees, 50% of all doctorates in STEM fields and the social sciences and 53% of all doctorates in the arts and humanities.
Paul Rand: Snyder has had a prolific career in higher education. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1980.
Barbara Snyder: Yes, a very proud graduate of the University of Chicago Law School.
Paul Rand: She later became president of Case Western. Today, Snyder lives in Washington, D.C., and uses her background to advocate on behalf of all the universities within her group. She says doing so is critically important because if we’re going to solve the world’s most pressing issues, the answers are probably going to come from research.
Barbara Snyder: You’re exactly right. There are so many questions that still need to be answered, climate change is one. How do we develop abundant, reasonably priced and widely accessible sources of energy? How do we ensure clean water to every part of the globe? How do we ensure a more equitable economy? Can we eradicate poverty? Can we use technology to improve education? Will medical advances continue to keep us healthy and living longer? Experts tell us this is not the last global pandemic, unfortunately. So there are plenty of questions. And in order to have solutions to those, we need a pipeline of very smart, very curious, very talented researchers. And that’s part of what this higher education ecosystem is designed to produce at America’s leading research universities.
Paul Rand: The Association of American Universities, or the AAU is the preeminent research intensive membership group. It includes private schools like Yale, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, as well as public schools like the University of Utah and Georgia Institute of Technology.
Barbara Snyder: We get funding from lots of different places, but mostly the federal government to do research across a variety of disciplines. This is competitive research, so it is peer reviewed and we have to compete. So we have to earn it. We don’t just get it.
Paul Rand: Much of that university research is called basic research.
Barbara Snyder: So basic research has actually enabled many discoveries that have improved national security, have improved the quality of life for all of us have, have advanced human health.
Paul Rand: Basic research is essential. It’s the foundation on which the world changing discoveries get made, but it can be the hardest to get funded because it often doesn’t have immediate commercial objective.
Barbara Snyder: That means that sometimes research that doesn’t have a clear commercial application won’t get funded. And it’s really important to tell that early part of the story, because too often, all people see is the last part of the story. And the last part of this story can often be a company that takes the last steps of some technology, the pharmaceutical company that takes basic research that was done at one of our universities and turns it into a blockbuster drug that has a tremendous impact on a lot of people. That’s great, but it hides the full story, and we need to make sure that the full story gets told.
Paul Rand: Telling that story is crucial, Snyder says because in the past few years, research universities have faced deep federal budget cuts and new pandemic relief provisions fall far short of what research universities need to recover from the effects of COVID-19.
Barbara Snyder: So traditionally support in Congress for research at universities has been bi-partisan and I hope that will continue, but it is concerning when more people in one political party than another seem to value less the work of this research. Our investment in research has gone down as a percentage of our GDP in a concerning way. In 1964, our investment in research at the federal level, so federal funding of research only I’m talking about was nearly 1.9% of United States GDP. And in 2018, it had fallen to 0.62% of GDP. So that is in my view, an under investment in research and is deeply concerning.
Paul Rand: Meanwhile, some other countries are investing more. Since 1965, the US has dropped from fourth to 10th place in the global ranking of research and development investment.
Barbara Snyder: I think we all ought to be worried about that. In 1967, the United States accounted for 61% of global R&D investments. And the government alone, the federal government alone was responsible for 39% of all global R&D investments. But in 2017, the United States global share of R&D spending dropped to 30% half of what it was in 1967, and R&D investments by the federal government fell by two thirds to under 7%. So that is a real competitive disadvantage for the United States.
Paul Rand: One thing that may help reverse those trends is a recent world changing advancement.
Barbara Snyder: So one of the things we’re doing is talking about the COVID vaccine and the work that went into that.
Paul Rand: That’s right, the vaccines for COVID-19.
Barbara Snyder: Developed over many years with federally funded basic research, it takes advantage of a process that cells use to make proteins to trigger an immune response to the virus that causes COVID-19 basically. And it’s different from traditional vaccines, they use either weakened or inactivated versions of the pathogen to try to stimulate an immune response. So this MRNA platform was literally decades in development and came from research at a number of our universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and MIT and Harvard and the University of Wisconsin among other places. So this basic research that didn’t have an obvious commercial application was sitting there ready when this pandemic hit. And these companies were able to take that platform and turn it into two vaccines that appear to be extremely effective and safe.
Paul Rand: Well, as we hear stories about the extraordinary speed of how these vaccines have come to market, you’re now giving us a little peek behind the curtain as to actually what transpired to allow that to happen.
Barbara Snyder: Yes, the extraordinary speed you're seeing today is just the last stages of that research, that doesn't communicate adequately the years of research that went into the platform.
Paul Rand: OK. If there were areas and we're all familiar with even the space race of years ago and other things, are there comparables today, and if so, what are they?
Barbara Snyder: So I think actually COVID is one of those moments. So Sputnik certainly spurred a tremendous, tremendous investment in research and that led to a lot of really wonderful things. And there are from time to time in our history, these moments that really make a difference, spur the imagination and also spur elected officials to see in different terms the importance of the investment in research and development. And we think this could be one of those moments. I certainly hope it’s one of those moments because the costs both in human terms and in a variety of other ways of this global pandemic are excruciating and difficult to see. And it’s going to take a long time to recover from that.
Barbara Snyder: So we have to be ready and we think research can help us do that. And it’s not just the pandemic, of course, as we’re facing the other things we talked about like climate change and water supply, and other issues, we have to be prepared. Fundamental research laid the groundwork for a lot of the things that will help solve those challenges.
Paul Rand: When you see the impact and value of what’s coming out of the research universities, where has that tension come and in this country and other countries, is it a simple reflection of populism or perceptions of intellectualism or elitism and because there’s clearly a tension there?
Barbara Snyder: Well, there is that tension I mentioned between the short-term and the long-term. Definitely, there are a lot of needs, especially right now. And this is a difficult time to be talking about investing in research on the one hand, because there are so many immediate needs, but is also essential to help people understand that if we don’t invest now, then we will be in terrible shape when the next pandemic comes. Or, we will be at a huge competitive disadvantage when some other country makes a huge leap in quantum computing that allows for advances that damages our national security potentially or other areas.
Barbara Snyder: So it is a challenging, but important message. And I think it’s worthwhile to be telling the story now, because I think this could be one of those pivotal moments like Sputnik, where people really got concerned about our lack of competitiveness in the sciences. And I don’t want to see ... I’m worried that we’ve been headed in that direction. I don’t, certainly don't think we’re there yet, but I don’t want to see any more of this disinvestment happen
Paul Rand: Coming up, how federally funded research shows up in everyday life and the effects of policies and funding for international students.
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Barbara Snyder: The Department of Defense and DARPA, its Advanced Research Projects Agency funded research at Stanford and other universities that led to major innovations in microprocessors that allow these microchips to be produced with millions and even billions of transistors that are found in electronic devices that we all use every single day. Flat panel displays that are in your television came from research at Cornell and MIT and Caltech and Columbia funded by DARPA and the NSF and the Department of Energy. Your smartphone is smart because of federally funded research.
Barbara Snyder: The LCD screens in our phones and tablets grew out of basic liquid crystal research funded by NIH, the NSF and the Department of Defense. The technology that enables navigation systems in your car and on your phone grew from research sponsored by the Department of Defense at the applied physics laboratory at Johns Hopkins. Batteries in your car, your electric car, which we’re going to all be driving, probably, the grant that the NSF gave to Stanford, 4.5 million funded a couple of graduate students by the name of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And they were doing research on digital libraries and information, and that led to the development of this prototype search engine based on their page rank method that ultimately became what we all know now as Google search.
Barbara Snyder: Diagnostic techniques like the MRI and CT and pet scanning were developed with the support of government sponsored research, and many places, including research universities worked on that. An example close to your home is the basic research at the University of Chicago that led to the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. There are so many examples. Research has made life better in America and lots of other places too.
Paul Rand: So, and it’s not, of course, just in the sciences, is that correct? Because there are many other fields of study in scholarship that go beyond the STEM fields.
Barbara Snyder: Absolutely. And research in the humanities helps deepen our understanding of the people and cultures that make up our world. This plays an enormously important role in diplomacy, which I think is critical to national security. We learn a lot from the pandemic that happened a century ago, thanks to the work of historians today who are helping us see the parallels and helping us learn from the past. I would also point to the study of ethics in philosophy, which has led to the development of norms and standards in many professions, including my own, the legal profession. So humanities research also was very important.
Paul Rand: You mentioned a little bit ago about, at least in comparison to the dollars going into research in this country versus what we're seeing in some other countries, yet in the same breath, the U.S. is still quite a draw for international students. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that and explain why, and there’s been unquestionably some pressures working against that lately and what the impact of that has been.
Barbara Snyder: There have been pressures working against that. And one of the great things about our higher education system is that it always has been the envy of the world. And we have been able to attract talented students from everywhere. The ability to recruit those students is essential to our continued progress because they come to the United States to be a part of this exciting higher education system that has a reputation for innovation that is still unrivaled, but we cannot take that for granted and we can’t rest on our laurels. And we look around and see other countries investing tremendous amounts of money in research universities in their countries, being able to attract students who would have come to the United States at one point, staying now in their countries and doing their work there. We want to be able to get them to come here. Sometimes they end up staying here and starting companies doing other things that make a big difference in the United States.
Paul Rand: So there has been some pressures lately of restricting international students for coming into this country. Do you have any sense of the impact that those restrictions have had and has that caused damage that you’re concerned about?
Barbara Snyder: We are. In fact, we have seen that a lot of international students weren’t able to get here this year because of the pandemic and border closures and so forth. And we worry about the long-term implication of that. We also know that some of our universities have actually not admitted new students into doctoral programs in some places, because they were concerned about starting a new class at this time. And that's going to have implications across the span of years because the graduate students, we didn’t get could be the next Larry Page and Sergey Brin, or who knows who.
Barbara Snyder: In fact, many of our member university presidents are immigrants to this country. So there’s a huge story to tell there about the value that immigrants have contributed over the course of history. And one of the many things that historians help us see through their research, but that continues to be a story that we need to tell.
Paul Rand: So we’re starting up with a new presidential administration, what, if anything, do you expect to be different as we go into the Biden era versus the era that we’ve just been coming out of?
Barbara Snyder: So we’re optimistic that there will be investments in research at an even higher level because of our competitive position and the importance of research. But that of course is not just up to the administration, it’s also Congress that has to appropriate the funding for that. So it definitely will still have to be a bipartisan effort. I also am hopeful that immigration issues will become a little bit less challenging. I’m particularly interested in seeing a solution for our students who are here on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the DACA students they’ve been in limbo for a long time, and that is draining and exhausting and scary for some of our students. And it would be wonderful to see a solution to that. And again, I think that can be and will be bipartisan.
Paul Rand: There are, and it could be an entirely separate conversation just to talk about the state of higher education. Is that something that in your role you’re thinking much about, or are you really very, very focused on the research side of this equation? Or, do you look at it more holistically?
Barbara Snyder: No, we look at it very holistically. So we advocate not just for research, but for things that matter to our students. I mentioned DACA, I mentioned Pell Grants, work study, immigration. There are a huge number of things that matter for our students directly and for their families. Pell Grants enables students whose families could not afford the cost of college for their children to be able to attend colleges and universities across the country. It’s an enormous thing that we have done over the course of years, and yet we’ve let the buying power of those grants go down and we need to reinvest in that area as well, because that’s a pipeline of talent that we may be missing if we don't enable those students to come to college, not just our universities, but across the board.
Paul Rand: Okay. As you look out and you’re seeing developments and growth and research happening at all times, tell me the things that right now you’re looking out and you just get really excited about. What is making you just feel encouraged beyond the COVID things that we’ve talked about?
Barbara Snyder: So I really feel excited about the work that’s going on in artificial intelligence. I think it has got the potential to revolutionize so many areas of life and make life better in a lot of different ways, both for human health, but also wellbeing. And I think a lot of development can happen as a result of that, that will be good for the United States and indeed good for the world, because believe me, global competitors are doing research right now in artificial intelligence, we’re not the only place.
Paul Rand: Of course.
Barbara Snyder: That’s one of the most exciting things. I think quantum computing has the ability to unleash a huge amount of power to be able to do work at speeds and at scales that were never dreamed up before. I think the work that's going on in energy, and I look at just the development over the course of the last couple of decades in clean energy, which used to be so expensive. Renewables were so expensive that people weren’t really using them without government subsidies or incentives, but now you look and so many people are investing in these technologies because they’re getting less expensive.
Barbara Snyder: And I think that energy research has the power to make a real difference in the environment that we leave to our children and grandchildren. And I care a lot about that. I think that research in economic development too has a lot of potential to change the way we think about what a healthy, robust economy looks like and inclusivity being an important part of that, that hasn't been valued in the same way as I think it might be today. So I’m incredibly encouraged about research that's going on in that space at universities and other places as well.
Paul Rand: There has been a dramatic change in the public’s perception of academic experts. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, more people believe scientists will help address societal issues and find them to be a more credible source than any other group of leaders.
Barbara Snyder: Yeah, it was a dramatic change, a dramatic improvement. And again, I think much of that has to do with the fact that we’re in a pandemic today and that people really understand the value of research. So telling the story about the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which looks like it happened in just months, but actually happened over the course of years, decades even, of basic research, it’s a good time to be talking about that. But also a good time to remind people that many of the technologies that they take for granted, people don’t think about how great it is to be walking around with a computer in your pocket or your purse and all the things that that enables. Cell phones are almost ubiquitous today, it’s absolutely remarkable.
Barbara Snyder: And the benefits of being able to access information and communication across the globe. We take so much of that for granted, but we shouldn’t. It came about because of investments in research often many decades ago, and that's why we need to continue to look at that and talk about investment and make those decisions now.
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