Continuing What Lincoln Started

Chancellor GoldsteinRemember the Beatles’ song: “A Day in the Life”? “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head”?

Let’s imagine a day in your life.

You woke up, fell out of bed, then brushed with fluoride toothpaste. You gulped an electrolyte sports drink after exercising and headed for work, where you checked your e-mail and Googled (several times). You told a coworker about your daughter’s high school biology project: not frog dissection but sequencing brine shrimp DNA. Buying lunch, you were surprised the scanner read the crumpled bar code. On the way home, you stopped at the hospital, where your father was feeling fine after laser cataract surgery. That night, you convinced your son to put aside his video game and walk the dog, checked the TV’s Doppler radar weather prediction and watched a bit of news. Surfing cable stations, you were thankful the kids’ TV has a V-chip. Turning off the light, you marveled at the modern world you live in.

All the inventions and advances in this day resulted from research conducted year in and year out at universities — which immeasurably improves your life. Consider vaccines (such as the one for polio, thanks to CUNY alumnus Jonas Salk), insulin, the electron microscope, ultrasound, pacemakers, MRIs, computers, development of the Internet, search engines, traffic management, radiation and cancer therapy to name just a few. These discoveries have come about through a unique team effort that requires highly educated faculty who have the facilities, support and time to pursue new inquiries. It requires students and postdoctoral researchers who are equally interested in these questions and skilled to help answer them. It requires a government willing to support the pursuit of new knowledge and its translation to commercialization. And it requires businesses and investors willing to take the risk of bringing the new ideas to market.

The United States has a history of ambitious and farsighted support for such inquiry. In 1862, while in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, enabling the development of public universities, and Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences. During World War II, government-funded university research helped develop radar, medical drugs and atomic weapons. Post-Sputnik, Washington pumped money into research. And in the 1980s, the Bayh-Dole Act allowed federal grant recipients to benefit by commercializing the products of their research.

That federal investment has paid off handsomely. Research universities are engines of prosperity, generating economic growth, jobs, and the services and tools that companies need. And public institutions educate almost 80 percent of U.S. students, developing generations of entrepreneurs, scientists, health-care professionals and small-business owners. CUNY alone has almost twice as many students as the entire Ivy League.

But today, we are seeing a regression of public support for public universities. Nationwide, between 1987 and 2006, the average share of public universities’ operating revenues from state sources dropped from 57 percent to less than 41 percent. As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted, in Asia, 20 percent of students major in engineering; in Europe, 13 percent do; but in the United States, only 4 percent of college graduates major in engineering.

When research productivity slows, when graduation rates of science and engineering students lag, our country’s innovation slumps, too. The decline of support for public higher education and the resulting stagnation is nothing less than a national security crisis. We need more scientists, engineers and technological innovators. And we need to develop the talents of all of our citizens. The naming of a record five female Nobel Prize winners this year — in economics, literature, medicine and chemistry — will, I hope, further encourage the development of the talent waiting to be discovered in our schools.

America’s best resource is still its people. That means robust funding for research. And it means instilling in every child the mindset and the preparation for college. We need to develop the talents of our future inventors, our future Nobel Prize winners. The United States is the only one of the 30 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than its 55- to 64-year-olds. That’s unconscionable — an alarm bell for anyone interested in our future prosperity. We must keep our universities healthy. As President Obama has said, “Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result.”

So let’s make sure that every “day in the life” of our children, and our children’s children, is made better by the power of our own innovation.