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.
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.
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."