Archive for Saturday, August 5, 2006

KU: Flawed review led to lost funds

University maintains some findings in report are simply wrong

August 5, 2006


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."


pusscanthropus 11 years, 9 months ago

No wonder they didn't find any mid-career scientists. All the mid-career scientists have moved their families to science-friendly communities!!!

Hiroyuki Kato 11 years, 9 months ago

I was deeply dissapointed!! It merely reveals the fact that KU does not have enough qualified faculties and facilities to run a first-rated research institution. Now I believe there is no way KU can be among top 25 public universities unless more excellent professors are hired. It's time for Regent to revise peer institutions too. UNC, Iowa and Colorado are incomparably better than KU. It's really sad!!!

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago

This exposes the folly of KU "chasing research money" instead of supporting research and research infrastructure to actually make things better.

Thing is about getting a big, multidisciplinary collaborative grant is that they expect results.

At KU, there is a dearth of mid-career research scientists because research is not supported. Successful research scientists leave the university and others who stay become research-inactive teaching faculty (also called "dead wood").

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago

Dolph Simons is correct. The response of KU officials is stunning.

They should be scrambling for ways to address the concerns of the reviewers instead of saying that the report is wrong and they have in fact done a great job. This is not the way to build a reputation as a research university. The fact is that KU does not support research at an adequate level, and this is becoming apparent to the NSF. This is bad news for KU and for the KU research enterprise.

"KU Vice Provost for Research Jim Roberts was on vacation and also could not be reached for comment."

-Hmmm. Maybe this is part of the problem. Clearing brush on his ranch, no doubt.

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago

The top problem KU faces is the recruitment and retention of top-notch faculty. The reasons for this are many. They include things like prejudice against the midwest and Kansas. However, also included are poor research support from KU and the anti-scientific stance of many prominent politcal bodies in the state (KBOE, legislature). It is a fact that top-notch faculty stay away from KU in droves because of the anti-science climate of the state.

KU has many top-notch faculty. Because of the extremely competitve nature of research funding, amny of these faculty must seek the best opportunities and that often means leaving KU for an institution that supports research.

KU views research as a money-making enterprise that can support itself. This is a mistake. Research requires infrastructure above and beyond what is obtained from federal grants. It requires investment. KU has failed to do this over the last 20 years, which is why KU is so far behind "peer" institutions such as UNC, Oregon, Texas, and Colorado.

Sigmund 11 years, 9 months ago

Dr Ray Stantz: Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn't have to produce anything! You've never been out of college! You don't know what it's like out there! I've worked in the private sector. They expect results.

middleoftheroad 11 years, 9 months ago

How typical...

"KU needs to recruit and retain top notch faculty", "KU doesn't have adequate research facilities", etc, etc, etc.

HOWEVER, how many of you BASHED the tuition increase??? KU can't raise tuition without hearing from the un-informed, now KU doesn't have enough???

Guess won't drop from the sky anytime soon. In order to get the best of the best in academia and in order to have state of the art facilities, KU needs money plain and simple. We all know the state is going to supply the financial relief anytime soon. I'm surprised KU's been able to accomplish all they have with limited finances and being in a state that is afraid to teach evolution.

KU still offers the best undergraduate research opportunities in the area and is still the only member of the AAU in the state (which is not a dues paying organization)all while being a top 50 public research many other schools can say this while having one of the lowest tuition costs in the Big XII??

For those not familiar with the AAU, just know that it is for the top research institutions in the nation and Canada (60 from the US and 2 from Canada). If KU didn't support research, they wouldn't be invited to be a part of the most elite now would they?

Look at the "peer institutions" and see what they're charging for tuition...if you don't want to take the time to research that, just know that KU's is the lowest, by a long shot.

Until some of you are willing to pony up a donation, I would quit the just gets old to hear the same old garbage because KU can never do right.

And it's absolutly ridiculous that Roberts is being chastized for taking vacation time...I bet none of you have ever gone on vacation in your lives...give me a break!!!

That's it...I've had enough of listening to the gabage on this site.

Be thankful that we have a well-known and respected institution in our community that supplies jobs to many residents and brings in obscene amounts of tourism dollars...Lawrence could be a lot worse off!

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago


I agree with you on most points. KU has ridiculously-low tuition that should be at least twice what it is now. I also agree that the complaints about high tuition are pretty silly, given how low it is now compared to "peer" instituitons.

I also agree that KU does a good job with what it has. It could do better.

I also agree that KU does remarkably well in a state that is as anti-intellectual and hostile to KU as Kansas is. People only think about teaching. Sometimes, KU is only concerned with teaching. They should spend more on research support, because it is research reputation, not teaching, that will make KU rise in the rankings.

Better researchers generally make better teachers, so supporting one will help the other.

Don't shoot the messenger. Bad news is tough to hear, as are critiques. But these points are valid and will make KU better if they are heeded.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

Hemenway has spent millions on "image," such as new buildings and athletics and public relations efforts that flopped and extra layers of administration that serve to insulate Hemenway from taking responsibility.

Hemenway should have been spending our money on faculty, research, and program improvements.

The problems, fellow alums, begin at the top and flow downhill. Something needs to be done about it.

Sigmund 11 years, 9 months ago

This isn't about the gospel of evolution or the Kansas BOE. The NSF objectively evalutated the Kansas program, its faculty and graduate students (not Kansans, not the BOE) and found them significantly lacking.

Godot is exactly correct. Hemenway spent his budget on the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Hopefully this incident will be the catalyst to give him the boot and get someone who can get KU back on track with the proper priorities.

Actually for a undergraduate education JCCC is a bargain and many of the credits will transfer to KU. How many students each year end up taking and passing basic college level math from JCCC because the GTA taught classes at KU are worthless? At one time the failure rate at KU for basic Math was over 50%, yet those same students are able to be taught and pass at JCCC.

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago

"How many students each year end up taking and passing basic college level math from JCCC because the GTA taught classes at KU are worthless?"

-I dont know Sigmoid. How many?

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