Public Research Universities: Why They Matter

Section 1: Public Research Universities Serve the National Interest

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The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education

What are some examples of public research universities’ contributions?

As one of the top agricultural universities in the world, the University of California, Davis established the World Food Center to tackle the major challenges in feeding and nourishing a growing planet in an environmentally sustainable way.

The School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee is the first graduate school in the nation dedicated to freshwater research, and is one of three such schools in the world.

The multitouch screen technology essential to smartphones, tablets, and other devices was developed at the University of Delaware.

The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service reaches more than 166,000 children aged five to eighteen and serves as Arkansas’ largest youth education organization.

Through its Biosecurity Research Institute and the forthcoming National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, Kansas State University has become a national leader in animal health and food safety.

In collaboration with partners across the university and the world, researchers at North Carolina State University have designed the first interactive virtual representation of poet John Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon at Paul’s Cross, London.

Public research universities play a significant role in regional and national economic development. With the demise of many private research laboratories, our nation’s universities have become the primary sources of U.S. research, discovery, and innovation.6 The biotech industry originated almost entirely from research universities. Countless start-ups and patent grants in a number of industries have sprung from the research clusters that have formed, in conjunction with private counterparts, around the University of California, Berkeley; University of California, San Diego; University of Michigan; University of Texas at Austin; and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.7 Further, public research universities regularly engage with community and state governments, providing academic expertise, technical assistance, and critical education and workforce development. They are also major employers: in 2012–2013, public research universities employed over 1.1 million faculty and staff nationwide, and were among the top-five largest employers in twenty-four states.8

Every day we benefit from discoveries made or knowledge advanced in public research universities. Public research universities have contributed to the development of antibiotics, the Internet, ATMs, bar codes, computing devices and smartphones, LEDs, laser eye surgery, sonic toothbrushes, and even wet suits.9 From malaria treatments in development at the University of California, Berkeley to the Ohio State University’s work on the mitigation of environmental risks in agriculture, public research universities continue to produce research that improves our health, grows our economy, and enhances our day-to-day lives in profound ways.

Public research universities advance the cultural vitality of their states and regions. They serve as vibrant cultural centers, producing strong communities whose diverse interests and activities enrich their region.10 They provide health care through academic medical centers, and 18 percent of all public research universities have hospitals.11 They also partner with public school systems to enhance educational opportunities at the K–12 level: 86 percent of public research universities have teacher certification programs approved by the state for initial certification or licensure of teachers.12


6 As of 2011, U.S. colleges and universities were conducting 55 percent of the nation’s basic research. See National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014,

7 Anderson Economic Group, Empowering Michigan: Seventh Annual Economic Impact Report of Michigan’s University Research Corridor (East Lansing, Mich.: Anderson Economic Group, 2014),

8 National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS; CareerOneStop, “State Profile: Largest Employers,”; and Infogroup,

9 Jonathan R. Cole, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), 193–195.

10 For some examples of excellence in this area, see Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU), Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Program,

11 National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS.

12 Ibid.