Our Views: Federal role in higher ed

Across the country, including Louisiana, university presidents have confronted several years of declining state support for higher education. But leaders of public and private universities are facing a similar drop in financial support from the federal government. Federal dollars support important research activities at public and private universities, and those dollars are in shorter supply because of ongoing federal budget policies.

That’s why LSU System President F. King Alexander and Tulane University President Scott Cowen joined dozens of other university leaders across America in signing a letter to President Barack Obama and members of Congress urging them to “close the innovation deficit.”

“The combination of eroding federal investments in research and higher education, additional cuts due to sequestration, and the enormous resources other nations are pouring into these areas is creating a new kind of deficit for the United States: an innovation deficit,” the university officials wrote. “Closing this innovation deficit — the widening gap between needed and actual investments — must be a national imperative.”

The letter continues:

“More than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II is a consequence of technological innovation, overwhelmingly resulting from federally funded scientific research. Such groundbreaking research has led to life-saving vaccines, lasers, MRI, touch screens, GPS, the Internet, and many other advances that have improved lives and generated entire new sectors of our economy. Many of the university researchers making those discoveries would not have the opportunity to be in their labs were it not for federal support of research and higher education.”

The letter lacks a specific recommendation regarding how much the federal government should be spending to support research and higher education. Those kinds of details are important. Because the goals of research are often open-ended, a case can always be made for boosting research and higher education budgets even more.

We agree, though, with the letter’s general argument cutting federal spending on education and research isn’t without consequence. A country intent on keeping its position as an economic superpower needs strong universities to drive innovation. That’s why federal support for universities is in the national interest.