Simons: KU reaction seems to underplay impact of lost NSF grant

It is hoped it was just a poor choice of words, but it is shocking, as well as disappointing, to read the reaction of a senior Kansas University official when explaining the National Science Foundation’s decision to discontinue its $17 million in support for KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.

NSF support for a new five-year term could have meant a total of up to $28 million for KU research efforts, but now, NSF officials have instructed KU officials to begin a phase-out plan for the final two years of the original five-year grant, and the university may not receive the full $17 million.

University officials responded to this shocking development in a rather casual, ho-hum manner, saying, “We’re just viewing this as an early graduation from the program.”

First, it is indeed a shock to learn of the NSF’s disappointment in the KU center’s performance, and it is an even bigger shock to read the university’s reaction.

Pulling the program from KU is a blow to the university, no matter how it may be explained! The loss of research dollars is significant, but perhaps even more damaging is how this action will be viewed by other federal agencies or other money-granting bodies when considering KU for research funds.

The NSF report said the university’s program had failed to perform, failed to meet expectations and had demonstrated a “near absence” of innovative research.

If that isn’t bad enough, it added, “The CEBC does not appear to adequately embrace its original vision for developing a cutting-edge national center for green design.”

KU officials countered by saying they did not think the NSF action would hurt the state’s goals to become a national leader in the biosciences. How about KU’s goals?

In fact, a KU official said that despite the break with the NSF and the harsh criticism accompanying the action, the university is not viewing this matter as a negative.

What could the folks on Mount Oread be thinking?

How about observations of NSF officials relative to the CEBC or the university’s focus on the research project? Among the problems cited by NSF were a continuing dearth of cooperation with industry, little general diversity among faculty, little collaborative research with industry, an alarmingly low number of publications and a lack of teamwork among researchers.

Something doesn’t add up because the report praised the work and dedication of CEBC Director Bala Subramaniam and noted improved facilities and supportive administrators.

Nevertheless, the NSF jerked its support for the KU effort. At the time the grant was announced, state and university leaders pointed to the selection of KU as proof of the school’s leadership position in research. The initial $17 million grant was the largest research grant in the state’s history.

That was three years ago. Now the university has lost the possibility of a grant renewal and is not likely to receive the full $17 million in the original package. Perhaps even more damaging are the NSF comments about their disappointment with the KU efforts.

Some may try to suggest the situation is not as bad as it appears and does nothing to hurt the school’s reputation. Who’s kidding whom?

KU does have a number of truly outstanding researchers, known nationally and internationally for their excellence. But having the NSF pull its support for a program at the university – and not only cut funding but also be highly critical of the efforts within a particular program – is a serious blow.

It’s like having the annual U.S. News and World Report drop KU in various evaluations and rankings and then have university officials say the rankings really don’t mean much. Baloney. They mean a lot to millions of people interested in higher education, and the NSF action also means a great deal and will send a negative message about KU’s research efforts in other fields. It will cause many to look more critically at KU to determine whether they want to invest research dollars here.

Something isn’t right, and someone at the university needs to explain the action better than merely saying the school looks at this action as just an “early graduation from the program” when, in fact, the NSF just gave KU an “F,” flunked it and eliminated it from the class.

It’s pretty serious business and, in light of all the cheering and chest-pounding when the grant was announced, it seems the NSF action should trigger some very serious internal investigations within the university and a far better public explanation about what happened and why.