Kansas University leaders may disagree with the National Science Foundation's decision to back out of one of the largest research grants in KU history.
But there likely isn't anything they can do about it.
"If they've made a decision to move on, I think one way or another they'll find a way to stick with that decision," Jim Roberts, KU vice provost for research, said Wednesday.
Provost Richard Lariviere said he didn't know whether an appeal would be successful.
Three years after KU announced its receipt of a $17 million, five-year NSF grant to establish the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, the federal agency is withdrawing its support. NSF maintains KU has not lived up to the expectations set when it awarded the research grant - at the time the largest in both KU and state history.
The CEBC seeks to develop chemical processes for industry that are better for the environment and economically viable.
In a recent report, NSF cited a plethora of concerns, including a "near absence" of innovative research and lack of sufficient collaborative research with industry.
An April site visit left no indication that such a critical report was coming, Roberts said.
"The report did not agree with what we had heard verbally," Roberts said. "That's the real shocker."
But NSF's move to drop support for the center should not be a surprise, said Lynn Preston, NSF deputy division director for centers in the engineering directorate.
"There were indications, very clear indications, in both prior site visit reports of the weaknesses that led to the decision - if people could deal with them," Preston said.
As for verbal feedback at the time of the site visit, Preston said that's not how the process works.
"We don't do a debriefing," she said. "We don't do anything like that."
The report, based on the third-year site visit in April, states the center's work lacked creativity and researchers produced an alarmingly low number of publications, among other problems.
"I think the scientists in the center need to take all that carefully into consideration and, as they move forward, incorporate whatever changes they need to make in order to be more successful," KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said in a recent interview.
According to NSF's Web site, the center has received nearly $9.2 million of the $17 million as of June 22.
The center could have received up to $4 million annually in the final two years of the grant, and it could have been eligible for up to $4 million annually for a second five-year term.
Instead, CEBC likely will receive $2.2 million in its fourth year and $1.5 million in the final year of the grant. And it won't be renewed for another term.
No engineering research center has ever asked NSF to reconsider its decision after a poor report, Preston said. She declined to speculate why.
KU has about a month to decide whether to contest the decision, a process technically called a "reconsideration."
Roberts said an appeal might bring KU a victory in the short term, but the question is whether KU would win in the long term.
"There's a lot of factors here," he said. "We're going to be working with NSF in the future. ... In the end, would you really win if you won an appeal?"
KU could contest the review process, but it couldn't contest the facts, Roberts said. He said he viewed any chance of a reversal of the decision as very difficult and it might be best simply to focus on the future.