Are public research universities in peril?

That funding has fallen precipitously, from 38 percent of their budgets two decades ago to about 23 percent now, with the number now below 10 percent at several top institutions. As those percentages fall further, some experts believe public institutions could begin essentially privatizing themselves, giving up what little state funding remains — and the public obligations it carries — in exchange for autonomy.

Funding for public research universities varies widely among states, from a low of $3,482 in Vermont in 2010 to $16,986 in Wyoming, which had the second-largest increase over the decade, behind only New York.

Roughly a dozen states increased funding in absolute terms but in about half those states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, and Missouri, enrollment growth meant there was still less money per student.

The public should understand what could be lost if public research universities wither away, said NSB member Ray Bowen, president emeritus of Texas A&M University: Not only the prospect of future discoveries in medicine and technology, but key drivers of economic development.

The report found the institutions produced 436 new start-ups in 2010 alone.

“You go to Austin, Texas (home of the University of Texas), that city is a vibrant economic environment because of that university, because of the bright people it produces and the faculty research that takes place,” Bowen said. “Same with Texas A&M.”

No state has seen more contentious battles over the place of public research universities than Texas, where a board of regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry has pushed for a focus on teaching, accountability, and lower costs, and expressed skepticism over the full value to taxpayers of the kind of research UT does. The university and its alumni have fought back, insisting there’s a place for an elite research university in a state system.

Public universities have acknowledged their obligations to improve efficiency, while emphasizing basic research may not always pay off immediately or in strict economic terms.

A recent similar report by the National Research Council said revitalizing public research universities requires action from a range of players — more funding from Washington, more autonomy from states if they won’t maintain funding levels, and more productivity from universities themselves.

“Universities have to adjust,” Bowen said. “Those that have not already started have perhaps made a mistake. There’s no question they have to become more efficient.”