John Staddon writes for the Martin Center about American universities’ longstanding leadership in scientific research.

Miguel Urquiola is professor and chair of the department of economics at Columbia University. His special field is education and his book Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research is about American higher education—its history, its relationship to higher education in Europe, and the trajectory it has followed from the first green shoots of the Ivy League.

Urquiola describes how the history of American universities put them on a path different from European universities, a path where economic forces could act in ways that allowed American institutions to diverge and, in the late 20th century, to become pre-eminent engines of scientific research.

This pre-eminence occurred despite statistics putting US scientific literacy well behind many European countries. For example, the second graph in the book shows PISA math scores for students from Germany, France, the UK, and the US: The US lags well behind in every year from 2003 to 2012. The first graph shows years of schooling: here the US leads. Despite more years of school, Americans do worse than the British, French, and Germans.

Nevertheless, something is working. The next graph in the book shows “the frequency with which Nobel winners’ biographies mention universities in different countries:” the US lagged massively in 1870, draws even in about 1920, and pulls way ahead thereafter. The US also leads in the number of science Nobels, but Urquiola’s point is that the work that contributes to the prize always occurs much earlier. The US leads in both.

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.