Archive for Friday, August 4, 2006

KU shocked that record grant may be in peril

Science foundation: University failing to produce as promised

August 4, 2006


The National Science Foundation's $17 million grant to Kansas University was hailed as the largest research grant in the history of the state when announced three years ago. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Congressman Dennis Moore were among those who came out to celebrate.

But now, because NSF says KU failed to perform, the university might not get all of that original grant money and is losing the line it had on millions of additional research dollars.

The foundation is phasing out its support for KU's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, saying the center failed to meet expectations and demonstrated a "near absence" of innovative research.

"CEBC does not appear to adequately embrace its original vision for developing a cutting-edge national center in green design," a recent report by NSF said.

"Early graduation"

KU officials said the move does not hurt the state's goals to become a national leader in the biosciences.

Even if CEBC doesn't receive the full $17 million, KU and the state are in a better position today - with new infrastructure, industry partnerships and research - than it was before the grant began, CEBC Director Bala Subramaniam said.

Tracy Taylor, president and CEO of the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp. and a player in the state's bioscience initiative, said Thursday he needed to check the facts of the situation before commenting how it might effect the state's bioscience initiative.

The KU center - partnered with researchers at the University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis and Texas' Prairie View A&M; University - develops chemical processes for industry that are better for the environment and economically viable.

Kevin Boatright, spokesman for the KU Center for Research, said the university is puzzled by NSF's decision and is appealing. And, despite harsh criticism of the program in NSF reviews, the university isn't viewing the break-up as a negative.

"We're just viewing this as an early graduation from the program," Boatright said.

Future millions

KU in 2003 was awarded a $17 million five-year grant from NSF to establish the center, one of more than 20 NSF-funded engineering centers in the nation.

If the Center had met NSF expectations, it could have been renewed for another five years in 2008, when the initial grant ends.

If the program had been renewed it could have received up to $4 million annually until 2013, said Lynn Preston, NSF deputy division director for centers in the engineering directorate. Support for a new five-year term plus full support through the end of the current grant would have been up to $28 million. The actual amount would depend on the program's performance and the NSF budget, Preston said.

But annual site visits to review the program spotted weaknesses.

A 2004 visit found a lack of collaboration with industry and the "near absence" of innovative ideas.

The following year, reviewers cited a continuing dearth of cooperation with industry, among other points.

And year three, this year, is key for site visits, KU officials said, because NSF determines whether to continue support after the initial grant ends.

But the center didn't make enough of an impression to renew the grant.

The latest report praised the dedication of the center's director, Subramaniam. And it noted improved facilities and supportive administrators, among other good points.

But it also noted the lack of innovative research, little gender diversity among faculty, little collaborative research with industry, an "alarmingly low number" of publications, lack of teamwork among researchers and other weaknesses. NSF's decision was not based on NSF's budget, Preston said.


"We were very surprised and shocked," Subramaniam said of the NSF analysis. "It just doesn't correlate with the overall progress and accomplishments of our team."

Subramaniam declined to discuss the specifics of the review.

"It's inappropriate for me to go into the details of the report," he said. "Obviously there's a difference of opinion. ... All I can say is the CEBC mission is very much alive."

He said the center has recruited new faculty and has new researchers coming on board in the fall. He pointed out that CEBC faculty have received NSF awards - evidence that top faculty are at the institution.

KU points out that the center has developed active partnerships with 12 companies, including Archer Daniels Midland and Proctor & Gamble.

NSF has instructed the center to begin a phase-out plan for the two final years of the grant. Whereas typical programs that are renewed receive up to $4 million annually in the final years of the grant, KU's funding will be reduced. KU likely will receive about $2.2 million in the fourth year of its grant and about $1.5 million in the final year of the grant, Preston said.

Subramaniam said no staff would be cut, but projects will be prioritized. And the center will turn, as it has in the past, to other funds from industry and public agencies, such as the departments of energy and defense.

"It doesn't allow us to grow at the rate we could have grown," he said. "What it has done is to really accelerate our efforts with more vigor in trying to develop alternative sources of funding."


lunacydetector 11 years, 9 months ago

maybe they should've hired some more chicks. oh well, nobody on the east or west coast takes midwest research or discoveries seriously anyway.

Ken Miller 11 years, 9 months ago

publish or perish. it appears KU has blown an excellent - and rare - opportunity.

wbob 11 years, 9 months ago

How could this happen in a state led by one of our nation's five best governors?

Sigmund 11 years, 9 months ago

The lack of new ideas and hostility to business kind of defines KU in my mind. The lack of gender diversity is a bit suprising.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

Why is it "inappropriate" to discuss the details of the review? We want full disclosure!!!

Sigmund 11 years, 9 months ago

Politicians that take credit for things they have nothing to do with can take the blame for things they have nothing to do with as well.

Ken Miller 11 years, 9 months ago

It amazes me that so much publicity has been generated by state government and business leaders for a commitment to Kansas biosciences - and those funding recipients at KU can't even write a few articles to keep a major fed grant. If you are going to put so many eggs in the biosciences basket, then at least make an attempt to do some work and show it!

wagenseil 11 years, 9 months ago

KU gives lip service to doing research, but the bottom line is evident from where the big money goes: athletics. Compare the salaries of the people doing, say, cancer research, and you'll find they are a fraction of those in the athletic programs. So what do you want -- life-saving drugs, or beating Mizzou? KU clearly thinks the latter is more important. Consequently it is not surprising that it can't attract people capable of running a major research program

Kyle Rohde 11 years, 9 months ago

That may possibly be the most ignorant thing I've read on here in a long time. KU Athletics is a self-sustaining part of the University, one that MAKES money rather than losing it, not to mention the unmeasurable publicity delivered by the sports.

Obviously, this is a screw-up on KU's part that had little to do with lack of funds. They had $17 million on the line and they'd already gotten a bunch of it, money was not the problem here.

jayhawks71 11 years, 9 months ago

Money that goes to pay people in athletics comes from the athletic department itself or from private donations. There is a portion that comes from the university budget, but the taxpayers are not paying Lew Perkins', Bill Self, or Mark Mangino's hefty salaries.

I do believe it is sad that people are so ready to DONATE money to the AD in lieu of donating to the academic side of the University.

Ken Miller 11 years, 9 months ago

well, j-71, blowing that $17 million grant may be part of the reason why the monied set isn't donating more to the academic side of the University. I'm sure it's not the first time KU's researchers have come up short in fulfilling grant expectations and requirements.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

I am amazed at the statement that no faculty members will be cut, even though new faculty were hired specifically for the now underfunded project.

Will KU now cry, "unfunded mandate"?

bowhunter, you are probably right. Now that the facilities have been built, and the high dollar administrative staff and faculty hired, the taxpayers will be expected to continue to fund the program. If we balk, we will, once again, be labeled by the non-productive, uncreative, non-diverse researchers as ignorant bible thumpers who stand in the path of scientific progress.

In truth, most Kansas taxpayers know a complete waste of resources when we see one.

I want to know how much money has been pumped into KTECH since its inception, and how much return, in the form of real jobs, and lasting business enterprises, Kansans have seen. My guess is "next to nothing."

KU and KTECH have struck out, big time, on this one.

Baille 11 years, 9 months ago

"How could this happen in a state led by one of our nation's five best governors?"

Conservative Republican's opposition to science. Has to be. Either that or KU admin screwed up. Probably a little bit of both.

Jayhawk226 11 years, 9 months ago

"I want to know how much money has been pumped into KTECH since its inception, and how much return, in the form of real jobs, and lasting business enterprises, Kansans have seen."

Is the average Kansas constituent and resident even competent and qualified to have ANY doing with anything related to science and technology?

I assumed the average Kansan was more suited for crusades and crying about taxes. Am I wrong?!!?

wagenseil 11 years, 9 months ago

Ah, the economic naivety of supporters of the athletic programs is so touching... There's a fixed amount of money available for charitable contributions. Big donor calls a research university, and the endowment association says "We've got this great program that is working to cure cancer/Alzheimers/heart disease whatever". Big donor calls KUEA and they are told "We've got a pampered 17 year old that might come here but if we don't build a new gym they'll go play for Bobby Knight instead!!!" Teams are doing well: give the athletic programs more money to reward success. Teams are doing badly: give the athletic programs more money to build them up.

Look at the top universities that do the research that improves your life -- medicine, engineering, computer science -- and then look at the ones that have top athletic programs: there is virtually no overlap (Stanford is one of the few exceptions. Hint: KU isn't Stanford). Those are the facts: there's a trade-off -- you can try to beat cancer, or you can try to beat Mizzou. In the real world you can't do both.

oldgoof 11 years, 9 months ago

Research money comes from the federal govt....(KTEC dollars are negligible in magnitude) and this has absolutely nothing to do with charitable giving to KU OR the Athletic Dept.

But for such magnitude of a grant to highly unusual. There is a story underneath here somewhere, but someone isn't talking... someone on a review panel must have it in for one of KU's researchers, or indeed, KU achieved little with the grant.

oldgoof 11 years, 9 months ago

oh....and as the grant disappears, the money is not replaced with state resources, so unless the researchers do find other funding sources, the people, indeed, do and will disappear.

adky 11 years, 9 months ago

Look on their website - too many foreigners work there! The only people losing their jobs will be foreigners. This may be a win in the war against immigration.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

"oh....and as the grant disappears, the money is not replaced with state resources, so unless the researchers do find other funding sources, the people, indeed, do and will disappear."

Just wait till next legislative session when Ballard and Hemenway will be crying for more money to replace the funds the Feds took away from them.

In the meantime, Hemenway could divert some of that interest money he gets to keep now (the interest on tuition that used to be part of the state's general fund) to support this failed project.

It is time for the powers that be to take a really close look at Hemenway's performance.

jayhawks71 11 years, 9 months ago

oscar, perhaps you need to allow time for your cause-effect relationship to take hold; the grant was just given in 2003. People tend to give for more visible outcomes;it reflects the blue collar mentality that unless you are producing a widget that someone can see and hold, you aren't doing anything worthwhile. For some reason, people see a winner on the field as some major accomplishment for an institution of learning. Ever go hang out with your friends and tout your school's discovery of X or research into Y?

I bet more people can name starters for KUs 1988 national championship team than can name ONE scientist that worked on the Human Genome Project (no, I am not saying that KU was integral in the Human Genome Project, just that something so important pales in recognition to your favorite sports team's big accomplishment).

Ken Miller 11 years, 9 months ago

j-71: perhaps, but I graduated from Indiana U., and I know of the groundbreaking research on sex provided by Kinsey and others; I also know my alma mater has one of the few particle accelerators, etc. And I can only name 6 or 7 players on Indiana's 1987 championship hoops team ;)

So I know that at least one public university can and does do wonderful things with their public funding, which then generates more private donations. But I will give you credit on the timeframe argument with respect to KU's bioscience efforts - it is still pretty early to judge. But what we are seeing so far......

thedreadpirate 11 years, 9 months ago

I think, to a degree, both of you are right in a way, you just need to step away from the partisan hackery the news media has led you to accept.

The CEBC was well funded, but poorly run. It was, and, for the moment, still is a 'center' for research, meaning that multiple primary investigator's oversee dozens of scientists within the department. The fact is, the entire center has published only two papers in three years, which is an egregious underachievement. Ours, for example, has published 13 in the past year and a half.

To say that KU is incapable of having success in research because it favors its athletics programs is, not to be disrespectful, a bit naive considering the breadth of departmental success in its research--pharm, chem, hbc, etc. Furthermore, regardless of any institution that performs research, the majority of the money for such never comes from the University itself or by state taxes or via alum donations but, rather, by grants from the NIH or NSF.

Stanford, to use the previously deemed 'sexy' choice, gets $244.5 million annually from the NIH. And that is only for the medical school and affiliated hospitals. Another good example might be UNC, which receives $212.3 million. Kansas' med-center, by contrast, only receives $44.5 million.

Research will remain a very active component of the University even if this once ambitious but now weak department 'graduates early.' Call it survival of the fittest research if you must.

Athletic teams serve as ambassadors for the university by getting that name out in the public and, in doing so, raise an enormous amount of revenue, much of which is put back into the athletic department but also of which goes to non-athletic scholarships and the like. Completely independent of academic research.

And of course every institution would like to have a phenomenal athletics department to juxtapose with successful research, but it's obviously a terribly difficult task to do. There is limited money, limited amounts of truly good scientists, and the institution's 'name' carries a lot of clout. Stanford or Harvard, e.g., are much more likely to gain NIH money considering their pedigrees. Moreover, with substantially larger endowments, they can afford better equipment and facilities and attract better scientists.

But KU will just keep trying to do the best it can, even if CEBC will soon be dead.

deepthroat 11 years, 9 months ago

Wagenseil said: "Look at the top universities that do the research that improves your life -- medicine, engineering, computer science -- and then look at the ones that have top athletic programs: there is virtually no overlap (Stanford is one of the few exceptions."

Are you kidding??? What about the University of Michigan, Duke, Cal-Berkeley, Texas, UCLA, USC, or Ohio State?? You think these schools who have pretty good athletic programs last time I checked weren't in the top echelon of research? You're extremely misinformed!

Rationalanimal 11 years, 9 months ago

And herein lies the inherent fatal flaw of academia...all debate and no execution. Give it to the business people, they'll know how to spend it.

Kelly Powell 11 years, 9 months ago

yep....They will figure out ways to bleed the money into their own pockets....And when they get caught they will play cya and blame it all on their subordinates.

elsatya 11 years, 9 months ago

Does anybody know how many businesses fail, go bankrupt, prosecuted or bailed out by federal government every year? How does it compare with failures in academic institutions?

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