Archive for Saturday, August 5, 2006

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

August 5, 2006


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.


pusscanthropus 11 years, 8 months ago

They should start with Hemenway. He reacted the same way when the news came that KU has slipped inthe national rankings--he criticized the rankings as "unscientific" instead of vowing to do something about KU's decline.

oldgoof 11 years, 8 months ago

Hemenway loves to tout ratings.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 11 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, I have to agree with the gist of this: this is bad, bad, bad, and we need to call it that. Today's LJW says that we "disagree" with the findings of the NSF. What are we DOING about it?

elsatya 11 years, 8 months ago

Loss of funding means loss of resources and perhaps jobs. Therefore, it is serious.

Quantity of funding dollars is not necessarily a measure the quality of research in KU or anywhere else. I would say that success in NSF funding depends greatly in marketing and PR and politics.

I do not believe that NSF does an overly objective evaluation of grant proposals. This remains true when you succeed as well when you fail. Besides the strength of the research proposal, your rapport with the program directors and peers plays a huge role in success or failure of a grant proposal. Sometimes, you may be lucky to have some friendly reviewers review your proposal and sometimes you may not be as lucky.

I would guess, when KU succeeded in acquiring this grant, KU was lucky enough to be reviewed by friendly reviewers and program directors, in addition to the strength of the proposal. This time KU was not as lucky. When funding was granted all the positives were highlighted and this time all the negatives were highlighted.

Those who are familiar with NSF funding mechanism would not read too much into it beyond a failure in marketing and PR.

straightshooter 11 years, 8 months ago

Ditto! My wife and I were amazed at the comments and reactions from KU officials. This is a great loss of opportunity and a great damage to the university's reputation.
KU's officials are becoming spinmasters like the current politicians. The KU's spokesperson that made that comment should get an early graduation.

Berserk 11 years, 8 months ago


I think this is great, now maybe instead of hiring some total retard that can't teach students, but can bring in expendable grant money, maybe they will get some real f**king teachers that know how to make learning interesting, and can SPEAK ENGLISH!!!

KU is pretty close to becoming another worthless MU school. Nobody looks at a diploma from MU and goes, wow, nice degree. Kansas is getting to be the same way becuase of "researching" and lack of quality professors and program directors.

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 8 months ago

KU does not support research at a basic level. Instead, they rely on the buzzwords "multidisciplinary", "collaborative", and "integrated".

The thing about a large, multidisciplinary grant such as this is that the agency expects results. KU does not support research enough to get results, and NSF has seen it.

KU is trying to "chase" research money by using buzzwords and phrases that funding agencies like to hear. Instead, they should support basic research fundamentally and stop this nonsense of large, collaborative grants that they cant maintain. It is putting the cart before the horse.

jasmine 11 years, 8 months ago

It's amazing what a big impact this will have on KU's engineering dept. It's difficult to get such big center grants. To have one taken away isn't like graduating early- it's like someone saying that they are withdrawing their support because they don't believe you are worthy of finishing.

If professors in the department think that grants have been hard to get in the past, try getting one in the future. They now belong to a department that NSF doesn't believe in. This is a setback that will cost the department for years to come. Those professors who have worked hard are going to have a difficult time showing that KU can support them. Start expecting people to abandon ship, and good scientists to avoid looking at KU for future jobs.

That the KU administration is passing this off as a "business as usual" is irresponsible. It will take years- if ever- for this damage to be repaired.

elsatya 11 years, 8 months ago

I would rather not take it so seriously.

I wish NSF had such a methodical and fair decision making process to evaluate proposals and their progress. NSF does not even have too many efficient program directors sitting in there to remember this rejection (or withdrawal) after a semester and across various programs.

If KU faculty is honest about their research and aggressive enough to go after their share of federal funding dollars, they will win the rightful share of Kansas.

mechman 11 years, 8 months ago

they are going to expect the alumni like you to donate more!

Sigmund 11 years, 8 months ago

As far as I know I have agreed with Dolf, oh lets say twice in my life. I have to add another and this time word for word.

wagenseil 11 years, 8 months ago

I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable if the administration took the honest approach and said something to the effect of "This obviously is very disappointing, we're going to take a long hard look at the situation and then we will get back to you." The fact that the immediate response is to try to ignore the [dead] elephant in the living room is not at all reassuring, and isn't going to fool anyone.

Actually, Dolph is right at least a third of the time, and this is definitely one of them.

eadlew 11 years, 8 months ago

I am an ex-KU researcher that now works overseas and I just heard about the demise of CEBC. I am familiar with CEBC and the loss funding is completely consistent with my and others' impressions of the effort. The effort was a truly great sales effort (a credit to Bala Subramanian); however, the underlying scientific focus, including many of the people involved, was totally ill-suited to the proposed work. It is not surprising that no publications came out of the work because the money was largely hoarded by a few individuals; i.e., even though 44 (?) faculty members were involved, the majority of the faculty were on the proposal in name only. Many faculty members that helped get the proposal, were subsequently marginalized and not provided resources to perform work. I am not exactly sure where the money actually went, but there should have been more than enough to go around.

Regardless and more importantly, this whole fiasco is a reflection of recent changes in research focus at KU. Over the last five years, KU has functionally gone for big money rather than good research. One point not mentioned, either when CEBC was first obtained or now that it has failed, is that individual-based research funded by the university has all but stopped. The resources that had been available for smaller, more creative work (something called the Research Development Fund) were completely usurped for the big centers and "small" innovative work has functionally ended. The result of this has been to place the majority of discretionary funds into a few hands and individual creativity has been stifled. Further, in the new system, you only get money if you cow-tow to the few that control the large centers, which is why more than few people have recently left KU in frustration.

Hopefully, KU will learn the lesson of CEBC failure; however, I highly doubt it because the money-first-attitude still seems to continue to prevail at the University, which is highly distressing because the university still has a lot of academic talent.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.