The critical review of a Kansas University research center that convinced the National Science Foundation to withdraw its funding must have been wrong, KU officials said Friday.
"If the review panel was right, NSF were fools to give the money in the first place," KU Provost Richard Lariviere said. "This is a 180-degree turn from what NSF said when they gave the grant."
The federal agency awarded KU $17 million to establish KU's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis - an award celebrated as the largest of its kind in state history when announced three years ago.
But now NSF is backing off its initial promise and phasing itself out of the deal because KU hasn't met NSF expectations. The KU center is one of more than 20 NSF engineering research centers across the nation.
"CEBC does not appear to adequately embrace its original vision for developing a cutting-edge national center in green design," concluded an NSF site review team, made up of Ph.D.s from across the country.
"I think that sounds pretty critical," said Galip Ulsoy, a mechanical engineering professor and deputy director of the Engineering Research Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Those are not the kinds of statements you like to see in your evaluation."
Ulsoy, who is quite familiar with NSF site reviews, said NSF's merit-review processes are an integral part of the federal agency and are important, even though the outcomes are not always what one would want.
The site review team is generally made up of experts in the field who don't have any conflicts of interest, he said.
"Usually, they're among the best people in the field that are not directly involved in the center," he said.
But KU officials question the review team's findings and believe some are simply wrong, said Kevin Boatright, spokesman for the KU Center for Research.
For example, the team found an "alarmingly low" number of research publications.
The 44 faculty and 102 graduate students connected to the center produced up to a dozen publications, the site review team found.
The team noted that in the same timeframe, other NSF engineering centers produced four to five times the number produced at KU.
But KU maintains the numbers were somehow incorrect and the center actually produced more. Boatright said there were 21 publications at the time of the NSF site visit; 14 in print and seven accepted awaiting publication.
"That's one of the areas that we would like to discuss with them," he said.
A 2005 site visit, the second-year review, found a low number of publications, lack of collaboration with industry, lack of faculty with process engineering experience and no reported evidence that the research developments were affecting those in industry.
"We felt we had made significant progress from the second year to the third year," Boatright said.
But the recent third-year review found a plethora of concerns.
It cited a shortage of dynamic mid-career scientists and engineers and found the center bogged down by numerous independent, small projects.
And it criticized the center's work, stating research "seemed to be proceeding with inadequate knowledge of what has occurred technologically, and/or is occurring at other laboratories (academic and industrial) around the world, especially regarding subjects central to the Center's goals," the site visit report said.
CEBC director Bala Subramaniam could not be reached for comment Friday. KU Vice Provost for Research Jim Roberts was on vacation and also could not be reached for comment.
Lariviere became testy when asked who was responsible for ensuring the center met expectations and who is responsible when such a grant falls through.
"I will not engage in that kind of nonsense," he said.
He said KU found the recent review surprisingly negative and also suggested that there is steep competition for such grants.
"Do you know how many of these centers there are in the entire country?" he said. "Do you know what the competition is like for these centers?"
KU's center is not the first to be in this position. In the history of the program, five programs have been in a similar boat facing a non-renewal, said Lynn Preston, NSF deputy division director for centers in the engineering directorate.
The site reviews can return some surprising conclusions, Ulsoy said, recalling site visits to the Michigan center.
"There were things that were not what we had expected," he said. "Overall, I think the people in the center do have a pretty good idea on how the center is doing well and where it's not doing well."
Ulsoy said whether a center is shocked by its reviews might depend on the particular center.
KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said the CEBC is moving forward and progressing, despite having lost its pipeline to millions of dollars from NSF.
"I think the key is really the question of how science operates," Hemenway said. "Sometimes your experiments work out. Sometimes your experiments are challenged by other scientists. You take that carefully under consideration and move forward."