Research woes seen ahead

Duke's Brodhead laments scarcity of money, students

Staff WriterDecember 17, 2004 

Duke University President Richard Brodhead sees trouble ahead for scientific research in the United States.

Research is dependent on federal dollars and foreign-born graduate students -- both of which are becoming scarcer.

"Imagine the paradox in a world where it's all too easy for jobs to go across borders but all too hard for intelligent people to come across borders for research and educational opportunities," Brodhead said Thursday in a meeting with editors and reporters at The News & Observer.

The drop in foreign students has occurred as a result of strict new visa policies after 9/11. The decline could ultimately affect the competitiveness of U.S. higher education, Brodhead said.

The president said he toured a lab at the recent opening of Duke's new engineering school and saw a fascinating process under way. Six graduate students -- only two of whom were American -- were working on research that makes retinal scan identification possible from a distance.

The research has implications for national security and for the very border policies that are restricting foreign students from entering the United States, Brodhead said.

Traditionally, the brightest students in India, China and other countries have come to the United States for education. But that won't continue forever, Brodhead said, citing the rapid development of Chinese universities.

A bigger problem, he added, is the lack of interest among U.S. students in technology and science. That starts with elementary schools, Brodhead said.

"It's a fourth-grade problem, it's a seventh-grade problem, it's a 10th-grade problem and a college problem," he said.

Reforming education is more easily said than done because there are so many theories and approaches, Brodhead said. "Everyone would do 'the thing' if you knew what 'the thing' was."

Universities are extremely concerned about the availability of federal dollars for research, Brodhead said. The federal government is the only entity that invests in basic science -- the kind of science that has traditionally yielded the greatest medical and scientific breakthroughs, Brodhead said.

"It is an issue of extreme national importance that universities are very much at the heart of," he said.

Brodhead said he wants Duke to deepen its collaborations with the Triangle's public universities.

Brodhead became Duke's president this past summer after the retirement of Nan Keohane. The former Yale University professor and dean said he has been surprised at how easily he has adapted to his new university.

He said he hopes to do more to make Duke more affordable to low-income and middle-income students. "That's something that I would like to be a hallmark of my time here," he said.

Providing access to students of all economic backgrounds is not only the right thing to do, he said, it's a matter of social interest.

"Education is one of the great social escalators in America," he said.

Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or janes@newsobserver.com.

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