What We Get for Our University R&D Spending

The campus of Yale University in 2012 (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

In response to Universities Decline Coronavirus Relief. Will They Turn Down Subsidies after the Pandemic?

A number of Ivy League schools have turned down epidemic-relief funds. Daniel Tenreiro writes: “Harvard, Yale, and the rest are tacitly admitting that they do not deserve pandemic-relief funding.”

I am not sure that this has anything to do with who deserves what. But those universities are not currently in need of the offered money, are supported by large endowments, and are sensitive to criticism.

Daniel adds: “But in normal times, they receive massive annual subsidies. By one estimate, Ivy League schools receive around $7 billion in taxpayer money every year. Federal dollars directly fund university research and tuition fees, while tax benefits constitute another massive subsidy to elite U.S. colleges. If we shouldn’t subsidize universities during recessions, should we subsidize them when the going is good?”

I suppose that depends on whether you think the country is better off with or without, say, the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

The Ivies get the ink, but Johns Hopkins is the federal government’s largest university research partner. It receives about $2 billion a year in federal funds and spends $2.3 billion on research and development. This money goes to everything from the development of spacecraft to medical research to basic science. Some of the important protective gear that medical personnel use when dealing with infectious diseases was developed at Johns Hopkins in response to the Ebola epidemic. We would not have modern genetic engineering without work done at Johns Hopkins — or pacemakers, polio vaccines, and much else.

There’s work being done on coronavirus vaccines at Harvard right now.

It ain’t all underwater basketweaving and foot-stamping women’s-studies majors.

I am mystified by the Right’s increasingly implacable hostility to America’s best universities. Yes, I know, the English departments are full of tenured radicals, in Roger Kimball’s memorable phrase. But our universities are also home to some of the most important scientific, technological, and scholarly work being done in the world. Of course, there is much that needs reforming. There also is much to be grateful for.

(I suppose this is all part of that “nationalism” that celebrates the nation and its accomplishments, except for the Ivy League, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the NFL, art, literature, classical music, New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, practically the whole of California . . .)

I do not think the question is who deserves money from the federal government. The question is what the federal government is getting for its money. The ROI on university-based scientific and technological research is pretty good compared to almost anything else the federal government does. The ROI on granddad’s Social Security check is not very much.

It is true that the major universities are tax-exempt nonprofits. So are political parties and churches and the National Association of Realtors and lots of other organizations. That does not seem to me outrageous. The elite universities and the research done there are exactly the sort of thing we should be encouraging. Of course waste should be avoided and meretricious work cut off. But that is a different kind of conversation.

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