Illustration by Jordy Van Den Nieuwendijk
Illustration by Jordy Van Den Nieuwendijk

U.S. college presidents make no apologies for their schools’ support for research. After all, American institutions dominate global surveys of universities, and most lists put a big emphasis on research accomplishments.

Of the 20 top schools for 2012 on the widely used Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings, for example, 17 are American. Colleges are “carefully evaluated using several indicators of research performance.”

Yet there has been little scrutiny of whether most of this research on campuses today is worth it.

Historically, a lot of basic and some applied research at U.S. universities has paid off, with many advances in computer and biomedical sciences. Science, however, like virtually everything else in life, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. As more and more resources are added to producing something, less and less additional output occurs at the margin.

The first $10 billion in annual federal research support for higher education probably yields a bigger payoff than the second, third or fourth $10 billion increment. Committees disbursing funds at the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation rank proposals and finance those for which resources are available, knowing that the 10th proposal approved is less likely to be scientifically or commercially as promising as the first or second one.

Applied Research

U.S. total research spending was estimated at $436 billion for 2012, in a forecast done by the Battelle Memorial Institute, absorbing $2.85 of every $100 of U.S. output. What may come as a surprise is how little of the work is directly financed by universities themselves -- about 3 percent of the U.S. total, according to the National Science Foundation.

Nor are U.S. universities conducting most of this work, either. More than 80 percent of research dollars in the U.S. goes to applied research and development, very little of which is financed or carried out in university facilities, but in corporate laboratories.

Although most basic research (investigations of fundamental principles, rather than the commercial application of ideas) occurs in university laboratories, about 40 percent takes place in nonacademic industrial settings. Some of it occurs at federal government-owned research centers managed by universities, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Yet far less than 30 percent of university faculty is in the hard sciences and engineering fields that receive the vast majority of outside research funds. The work that takes place on campus is supported largely by giving faculty ever-lower teaching loads. A recent survey of 30,000 faculty by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles shows an increase in the proportion of faculty with very low teaching loads. In 2007-08, only 7 percent of American faculty members taught less than four hours a week. By 2011-12, this figure had risen to almost 15.6 percent, according to the UCLA study, and at private universities it exceeds 31 percent.

This work might be worth it if a lot of high-quality or influential material was produced. The evidence, however, shows this isn’t the case.

The professors may be teaching less, but they aren’t exactly spending much time on research, either. The UCLA survey shows that almost 62.6 percent of faculty members spend fewer than eight hours a week on research endeavors. The typical professor surveyed publishes only about one paper a year, mostly for low-circulation academic journals.

Shakespeare Industry

A study conducted by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity examined the publications of 156 faculty members in English departments at four high-quality state schools (the State University of New York at Buffalo and the universities of Georgia, Illinois and Vermont). The study shows that “there is a glaring mismatch between the resources these universities and faculty members invest and the impact of most published scholarship.”

For example, one essay on Shakespeare appearing in a volume of essays in 2004 collected one citation in the 111 books written on Shakespeare in the years 2008 and 2009. Four other essays on Shakespeare didn’t receive a single citation.

Do we really need one book a week written on the Bard (the 400th anniversary of whose death is in 2016)? What is the point of subsidizing scholarly writing that virtually no one reads or cites? Maybe society would be better off if English professors had done more teaching and less researching, perhaps helping to keep college costs lower.

Defenders of the emphasis on research argue that it strengthens teaching. Tell that to the thousands of students paying for classes taught by inexperienced adjunct teachers and graduate students because their professors are off writing one of the almost 1,000 articles a year published on Shakespeare that very few people read. An analysis of 58 studies dealing with university research and teaching by John Hattie and H.W. Marsh concluded there is zero relationship between research and teaching. Or, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it in 1853 in “The Idea of a University”: “To discover and to teach are distinct functions.”

If too much university research is of dubious value and also doesn’t enhance the quality of teaching, a strong case can be made to reverse the gradual reduction of classroom time, and the shift toward research in the past half-century. Incentives are out of whack. Universities get generous overhead funds from federal research grants, and those who publish receive larger salary increases.

A more objective cost-benefit analysis of all university research is overdue. This might help shift attention to where it belongs: on much-needed improvements in the teaching and training of the next generation.

(Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Richard Vedder at vedder@ohio.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.