State divestment in public campuses and stagnant federal funding put research universities in a position where maintaining their complex mission requires them to rely more and more heavily on institutional funding to support research and public service. This unsustainable funding model is being cemented at a time when skepticism about academic research and higher education is high, when austerity rhetoric makes substantial public investment difficult, and when justifications for universities emphasize individual returns to education and the impact of single grants or research fields. These trends put research universities at risk by wedding their work more tightly to the market and its rationales. Understanding why this is dangerous and how to protect these important institutions requires a new, system level, network approach to universities and their research.
This chapter introduces three metaphors (sources, anchors and hubs) that organize the book. It demonstrates that current tools for analyzing, explaining and improving the work of research institutions are insufficient to the task. In order to ensure that publicly supported research universities remain the cornerstone of the national and global innovation system, it is necessary to develop a new model for understanding and explaining their work. That model focuses on collaboration networks, regional and community effects, and the inter-organizational connections that make universities into clearinghouses for problems and solutions from across society. An extended case study of Google's PageRank algorithm shows the surprising ways that federal research funding supported Google's development. It highlights the importance of focusing on research careers, multiple discoveries, and networks at many levels of analysis to understand how research universities and public support result in significant innovation and economic returns.
Today's universities were not designed to serve the roles that make them so important. They evolved through a complicated process kicked off by key federal policy debates in the early Cold War years. Those conflicts and their outcomes help to explain the organization of today's universities, their complicated missions and the ways their work is or is not associated with collective benefits. The chapter addresses their complicated financial models and organization, focusing on decentralization, on campus public goods, and tradeoffs across revenue streams. A proposed revision to that the University of Wisconsin system's shows how the institutional and organizational complications that make universities difficult to explain and evaluate contribute to their fertility. The key to understanding how universities consistently serve important purposes for society has to do with their conservative character (they are slow to change) and their innovative work (they are a preeminent source of novelty).
Chapter 3 starts with the process of innovation. The discovery of new things (or new ways of doing old things) often results when existing pieces of knowledge or technology are combined in new ways. The smart phone touch screen pioneered by Apple provides a key example. Universities are continual sources of new discoveries because of the collaboration networks that grow on and across campuses. Those networks are diverse, balanced, and complex. Understanding how they work in order to have a chance to change and sustain them requires attention to the process by which they grow and reproduce themselves. A high-profile book in gender theory helps to illustrate the point. The chapter concludes with a detailed discussion of original qualitative research that uses human embryonic stem cell science to illustrate the ways that federal research funding plays a key role in the process of collaboration and the networks that result.
Public support and the particular features of universities make them important anchors for communities, economies, industries, and regions. The anchor metaphor has three components. Universities add resilience to the things they anchor because they are stable, conservative, and geographically fixed. They help set the tone of their regions by acting as anchor tenants. The positive externalities created as they pursue their work make it easier for other types of organizations and communities to locate near them and succeed. Finally, they function as network actors whose commitment to openness and the public good allows them to pursue their own interests without exerting control over their products. That work means they can serve as a convener and meeting ground for many different constituencies. In that role, they strengthen connections among partners providing a scaffold for generative networks to grow. A case study of Napa Valley wine illustrates the point.
Universities are hubs connecting far flung parts of society and they economy. In doing so they create shortcuts between different sectors, industries and communities. Being a hub makes universities good sources because it insures that problems and opportunities flow to them from many different parts of the world. It also makes them a target because their work touches on and influences some of the most important parts of society. Universities are hubs in two senses. They are network hubs because flows of people and knowledge to and from campus connect them to partners in all precincts of society. They are institutional hubs because their multiple missions and wide range of fields mean that most domains of contemporary life depend on their products. Case studies of the breast cancer gene (BRCA1) and the MIT Media Lab integrate and illuminate the various aspects of this important metaphor.
Chapter 6 describes how the system of research universities keeps our nation and the world poised to benefit from "unknown-unknown" opportunities and to respond to unforeseeable threats. It also calls for rigorous but local experimentation to improve research universities' ability to do this work. Such experiments should be guided by shared principles and informed by a research infrastructure that turns the academy's best science on itself. Academic responses to the recent outbreak of Zika Virus and the development of a new and powerful genetic technology (CRISPR) anchor the first portion of the chapter. Policy recommendations for expanded federal funding and a revitalized federal-state partnership enhanced by private sector engagement are offered.