Saturday, August 24, 2013


Harry Targ

The President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, has been embroiled in controversies over the summer because of e-mail messages recently uncovered by Associated Press reporters when he was Governor of Indiana. These messages indicate that as Governor, Daniels sought to exclude Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, from text use in public school curricula. Also, he sought to exclude the use of Zinn’s history in college level teacher training courses. 

In a second controversy critics of Daniels uncovered that he was only one of two Big Ten university presidents who failed to sign a letter to Congress and the President urging them to continue adequate funding for research and development, primarily in the sciences.

President Daniels, defending his decision not to sign the letter, said he was motivated by the letter’s failure to address the “severe fiscal condition in which the nation finds itself.” However, he said, he is an advocate of “major federal investments in research particularly basic research….”

After growing criticism from Purdue University faculty, on Thursday, August 22, President Daniels announced that he would now sign the letter initiated by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. He said he learned that the AAU and APLU had previously sent another letter to the politicians urging deficit-reduction, tax reform, and warning of “runaway costs of entitlement programs.”

Daniels’ original statement in opposition to the letter and subsequent endorsement of it ignored the significant decline in federal deficits over the last two years. He, as well as the other presidents of major universities, seemingly dismissed the fact that warnings of the dire consequences of debts and deficits have been discounted by many mainstream economists. 

To underscore Daniels’ political agenda, reflected in both his defense of his initial refusal to sign the letter and his recent change of mind, Daniels claimed that “the exploding cost of entitlement programs is choking all kinds of discretionary spending, not just NSF and NIH but many worthy public programs.” Presumably these “entitlement programs” include Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Daniels’ critics claimed that the original reason for refusing to endorse the letter signed by 165 presidents of the most distinguished universities in the country, reflected his political ideology more than his current position as university president. However, the critics fail to recognize that the letter in dispute itself reads like a crass political statement.

The letter highlights an interesting concept, the “innovation deficit.” The statement claims that reductions in federal research support will reduce the creative energies and research outcomes of scientists and other scholars at the nation’s colleges and universities.   No definition of “innovation deficit" is provided. Further, no convincing evidence is presented that clearly demonstrates a connection between innovation and federal research dollars. 

Finally, the letter does not describe the federal agencies to which federal research dollars typically are channeled. For example, President Obama’s FY2013 budget included a proposed 1.4 percent increase in R&D of $1.95 billion dollars to $140 billion. While some agencies would suffer modest declines, 95 percent of federal research dollars would go to seven federal agencies with 50.6 percent to the Department of Defense and 22.3 percent to the Department of Health and Human Services. Throughout the entire period since World War II, almost fifty percent of government research spending has been allotted to the Department of Defense. 

Americans should have clear and transparent explanations for federal expenditures, including research. Today almost 50 percent of the citizenry live below or near the poverty line and major cities, including Detroit and Gary, are going bankrupt. College tuitions are skyrocketing. The letter, a lobbying exhortation by university presidents, does not compellingly explain the connections between research expenditures and the fundamental needs of the vast majority of the American people.

A final problem with the letter signed by165 university presidents is their warning that “having witnessed this nation’s success at turning investments in research and higher education into innovation and economic growth, countries such as China, Singapore, and Korea have dramatically increased their own investments in these areas.” These other countries have invested two to four times more as a percentage of their budgets on research than the United States in recent years, the letter admonishes. The University presidents are raising the specter of a new 21st century Asian threat that is replacing the old fear of communism; that is scientific innovation. 

The scientific enterprise is conceptualized as one in which socially constructed institutions, nations, compete with each other. Asian competition, the letter suggests, is particularly threatening. The statement is a far cry from the vision of the scientific enterprise as a shared community activity with shared outcomes.