Kansas University will continue to fund the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, though the National Science Foundation is withdrawing its grant money because of the center's inadequate performance.
"We'll continue to support it as we support all scientific endeavors - to the best that we can under the financial restraints that we operate," KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said Wednesday.
The center, which develops environmentally benign chemical processes for industry, was supported by a once-record $17 million, five-year grant from NSF. But the federal agency is pulling out, citing underperformance in multiple areas. It will slowly reduce its support for the final two years of the grant and won't stay on for what could have been another five-year term.
Hemenway said work at the center will have to be prioritized, and some people may move from one lab to another or from one idea to another, but that he doesn't anticipate any scientists getting booted because of NSF's decision.
"I can think of a number of Nobel Prize winners who if their heads had rolled after they lost a particular grant, we would have missed out on some Nobel Prize-winning science," he said.
More about the center
Five other NSF engineering research centers have been in a similar position facing nonrenewal, NSF has said. The agency declined Wednesday to reveal those institutions, saying it was not NSF policy to do so.
Annual NSF-organized site visits to KU's center found lack of collaboration with industry, lack of innovation, a paltry number of publications compared to similar centers, a lack of teamwork among researchers and other problems.
"I think we need to look back and see what we can learn from it," said Brian Laird, a KU chemistry professor who also works in the CEBC program.
Bala Subramaniam, the center's director, and Jim Roberts, vice provost for research, did not return calls Wednesday.
It was unclear late Wednesday how much annual financial support KU gives the center.
According to a 2003 news release announcing the center, KU put up $2 million for new faculty positions and $320,000 for an education program coordinator. It also provided 12,300 square feet of facility space valued at $6 million and gave funds for other areas. The state of Kansas contributed $1 million, the release said. Subramaniam, a distinguished professor who earns $210,000, was the 13th highest paid employee at KU in 2005, according to a list, based on public records, that does not include the medical center.
"We're always evaluating how we make investments," Hemenway said. "We would do the same evaluation for this center as we would for any other center."