Why American Universities Lead the World in Research

When it comes to real research — the kind that leads to breakthroughs that make our lives better — a high percentage of it comes out of American universities.

Why is this so? Columbia University professor Miguel Urquiola has written an intriguing book in which he argues that the reason why is that compared with universities in the rest of the world, ours are comparatively laissez-faire. In today’s Martin Center article, Duke University professor John Staddon evaluates Urquiola’s book.

Staddon writes:

How did the US achieve leadership in research despite several counter-indications and a slow start? Urquiola’s answer is that our higher education evolved in the direction of the free market. In European countries, institutions of higher education evolved in the opposite direction.

In our early days, colleges and universities sorted themselves mainly by religious affiliation and there wasn’t much competition among them. But in the 19th century, a few (such as Johns Hopkins) began to move in a different direction, competing to attract faculty members who could both teach and do research. That competition was the key to our success.

Few American students are scientifically literate, but that doesn’t matter. Staddon explains:

Research is an elite activity. A handful of universities dwarf the rest in terms of research output. Poor scientific literacy in the mass of the population is irrelevant so long as the brightest fraction of students are well-educated and offered research opportunities.

In higher education, we’re doing a lot wrong, but getting a few crucial things right. As Staddon concludes,

Urquiola deserves credit for highlighting American academic research pre-eminence and giving a plausible description of the historical process that made it possible. Our higher education system is messy, but due to competition, it works rather well.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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