Richard Levin, Yale’s President Emeritus, Discusses the Role of the Research University

In 1960, William R. Bennett Jr., the late C. Baldwin Sawyer Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science and Physics at Yale University, invented the argon gas laser. In the decades since, the laser has been used in hundreds of industrial and medical applications. In fact, in the 1990s, Bennett himself was treated for a detached retina with the laser; the procedure saved his vision.

“No one really knew what good these things would be,” said Richard C. Levin, Yale University’s president emeritus. Speaking at the Yale School of Management on January 28, Levin cited Bennett’s story as an example of the priceless—and unpredictable—benefits of scientific research conducted at American research universities.

Delivering the first Convening Yale lecture in the new Edward P. Evans Hall, Levin discussed the unique nature of American research universities and the important role they play in securing prosperity. Research universities, Levin said, have been a key driver of economic growth in the U.S. since the end of World War II, when the federal government launched programs to fund research that benefits the public good.

In the U.S., 70% of scientific research is done in university settings, where the synergy between teaching and research creates an especially fertile setting, Levin said. In most other nations, he noted, the bulk of research is done in elite institutions with no teaching component.

Because of this unique model and robust federal funding, the U.S. has led the world in scientific and technological innovations since World War II, Levin said. In the period from 1901 to 1945, U.S. citizens won 12.9% of the Nobel Prizes given in chemistry, physics, and medicine, Levin noted. The figure jumped to 58.8% between 1990 and 2012.

“Our lead isn’t yet eroding,” Levin said. But he warned that decreased federal investment is threatening university research. Federal funding declined sharply from 2003 to 2008 and continues to fluctuate, Levin said. In 1963, 10.4% of all federal expenditures went into research funding, but that figure had dropped to 3.5% by 2013, Levin said.

Spiraling entitlement program spending—especially medical costs—has overshadowed research and all other federal funding categories, Levin said. “It’s all about healthcare,” he said. “The cost of healthcare has basically crowded out research and lots of other investments.” State budgets are similarly affected by Medicaid spending.

Levin recommended several measures to restore and preserve federal research funding, which he said should grow at the same rate as the national GDP. He called for the government to make fewer and more efficient  “career grants” to researchers in five-year blocks, instead of allocating individual project grants.

Levin also said that to most effectively push new technology forward, the federal government should buy promising technologies instead of just subsidizing them. “I truly don’t understand why the government doesn’t simply buy electric cars,” he said.

But reducing healthcare spending may be the single most important step to free up more research dollar, Levin said. “Everything follows from solving healthcare,” he said. “It’s just become too big a drain.”