Dear Mr. President-Elect: Congratulations on your election to our nation's highest office. We all appreciate the extraordinary challenges you face regarding the economy, climate change, health care, and the international situation.
To keep America strong, the times require greater efficiency and effectiveness throughout government and in all our institutions. I respectfully suggest that our national well-being also depends on contributions that can be made by our great research universities. I hope you will view these extraordinary institutions not as another special interest but as your asset, to be deployed aggressively and effectively in a bold partnership that will maintain and enhance America's greatness. Four critical issues require your attention:
First, we need to work together to realize the goal of putting higher education within reach of all Americans. They must have the knowledge and skills necessary to function effectively in the global economy, and we need to make sure that the cost of higher education does not prevent our citizens from developing these abilities to the fullest. And as important as science and technology are to the nation's interest, so are critical thinking and the cultural and ethical context that can be gained only from a liberal education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
We must work within our universities to improve affordability and accountability. We have a responsibility to keep costs down through efficient administration, to develop new non-public sources of revenue, and to devise pricing structures that make need-based student aid a central component. But the federal government also must play a significant and increasing role in making higher education affordable, especially for those families without the financial capacity to assume substantial debt as a method of securing a college education.
Given the needs of our communities and the strong interest that many students have in public service, I hope you will consider offering college tax credits or tuition grants in exchange for a significant amount of community service. Everyone—students, families, and the nation—would benefit from such an approach. I hope you will also make more, and more substantial, need-based student aid a high priority of your administration.
Second, I hope we can depend on you to support university-based research as one of the key tools for maintaining America's ability to innovate and to ensure our continuing scientific and technological leadership. Some of this investment should be directed toward fields that promise substantial payoff in the short- to medium-term, including biotechnology, information technology, nanoscience, and the biomedical sciences.
A significant fraction of the federal investment, however, should support bold basic research, which may not bring immediate economic benefits but offers the prospect of transformative long-term results. The federal government's investment in basic research during the second half of the twentieth century laid the foundation for America's economic strength for two generations.
There is a great need, now only partly addressed, to support the work of younger researchers from whom we are likely to gain the most innovative ideas. There is an even more critical need to continue support for those who have proven worthy of the initial investment as they move into early mid-career. There is a similarly critical need to fund high-risk, high-return research.
Third, your administration should encourage the translation of research results into products and processes that can be developed and marketed in the private sector. Most major research universities are already involved in technology transfer, but their efforts are less effective than they might be, partly because of a lack of venture capital and partly because of deficiencies in the mechanisms for the protection of intellectual property. The federal government can help capture the full economic benefit of university research by reforming the patent system to encourage innovation and by preserving and extending tax credits for research and development.
Finally, I urge you to employ American universities and their superb faculties as an asset for building capacity in the developing world. This important use of higher education for the global good can and will improve our relations with countries around the world and enhance their opportunities for personal and societal fulfillment.
Times of great crisis call for great vision. The American people have entrusted you with their future, and I urge you to use your new mandate not only to address the immediate challenges facing our nation but also to set it on a bold course for the future that fully develops our creativity, knowledge, and capacity for innovation.
David J. Skorton
President, Cornell University