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Archive for Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Funding slowdown puts squeeze on research efforts

April 24, 2007

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Across Kansas University's Lawrence campus, there are 35 vacant jobs that can't be filled this school year.

Plans to install a chiller at a research building on West Campus are on hold. At KU's Biodiversity Institute, the staff can't spend about $130,000 it thought it would be able to this year.

The reason for those measures is an unforeseen slowing this year in the amount of money KU recoups from overhead costs on research grants - a flexible pot of money known as "facilities and administration" dollars. At the beginning of the academic year, leaders of KU's research office had planned on recouping about $22.2 million in overhead costs from grants this year.

Now, it looks as if this year's number may be around $19.9 million.

Jim Roberts, KU's vice provost for research, attributes the gap in part to the dwindling of research dollars at the federal level. He said KU has done well in recent years at increasing its share of research dollars, even as the total amount of money earmarked by the federal government for research has remained flat.

"KU has done very well in the face of that, but it looks like we might get caught a little bit this year on it," Roberts said last week in his office in KU's Youngberg Hall on West Campus. "This whole forecasting method that we use is based on past history, and this year is just different."

44 percent for overhead

When a researcher at KU gets a federal grant, the school takes a portion off the top - typically 44 percent - and combines the money into one pot. That money is administered by the KU Center for Research Inc., a nonprofit foundation of which Roberts is president.

Some of the money goes for one-time "start-up funds" for new researchers. Some goes to the chancellor's and provost's offices. Much of it goes to deans, unit directors and the operations of eight designated "research centers" across campus.

A large portion of the money goes for buildings. The biggest example of that is the new $40 million Multidisciplinary Research Building on West Campus. Bond payments for the building will cost $1.9 million this year - about 9.5 percent of the total budget of the Center for Research - and $3.8 million each year from 2008 until 2025.

The idea was that the building would be paid for with overhead from research dollars, instead of state tax dollars. Although research dollars are harder to come by, the bonds still must be paid.

"It's kind of like the home mortgage. It becomes the first thing you have to pay because it's a major commitment over a long period of time," said Kevin Boatright, a spokesman for Roberts' office.

Boatright said the office's staff realized about a month ago that its revenue from overhead costs would be coming in below expectations. That led to cost-saving measures, such as holding off on a $65,000 plan to install a new chiller for the air-conditioning system at the Higuchi Building.

The office has identified 35 vacant job positions that will not be filled until after July 1. A detailed accounting of those jobs was not available, but Boatright said they were primarily administrative positions.

Federal problem

Roberts described the stagnant funding for research at the federal level as "a problem for the country" that needs to be addressed by Congress. After doubling its expenditures from 1998 to 2003, the National Institutes of Health - KU's single-largest funding agency - has leveled off near $28 billion a year in recent years.

"Institutions built their infrastructure expecting perhaps a time where the resources would not be flat as they are now," said Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy NIH director.

Boatright said the new research building may limit KU's flexibility in the short term but will better help the school compete for grants in the future.

"We would argue that the short-term disadvantages are going to be offset by long-term advantages," he said.

Still, if the picture doesn't improve in coming years, Boatright said, the research office may have to pursue new routes of funding, including making the case to private donors to help pay for research buildings or partnering with the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Biodiversity crunch

At the Biodiversity Institute, one of eight designated research centers on campus that receive funding through Roberts' office, the impact this year has been "significant and unfortunate," assistant director Jordan Yochim said.

In a typical year, the institute receives anywhere from $70,000 to $80,000 from the KU Center for Research's budget from overhead costs.

"We reinvest that in our research infrastructure, in graduate student support, in the things that make us better at doing the research we do in our field," Yochim said.

In the past, if it hasn't spent all that money, it's been able to keep it for the next year. Going into this year, he said, the institute had about $130,000 from overhead costs that officials thought they would be able to spend.

Now, they can't.

"Without it, we sort of are stuck in the present, and that's been the big impact on us," he said. "We've had to sort of scale back, put things on hold. We've had to hold off filling a few positions we would like to fill.

"They aren't calling it a cut yet. They just froze the funds. We can't spend it any more this year because they need it."

The budget Roberts oversees is only for KU's Lawrence campus. A description of what the situation is at KU Medical Center wasn't available Monday.

Overall, research grants at KU amount to about $218 million each year, including the medical center, which represents about one-fifth of KU's $1 billion budget.

Comments

gccs14r 7 years, 8 months ago

The Mob doesn't even take 44%. What that means is that researchers must inflate their grant proposals to get the funding they need, which drives up our taxes. Someone needs to go through the Regents System bureaucracy office-by-office and figure out who is wheat and who is chaff, then get rid of the chaff.

compmd 7 years, 8 months ago

gccs14r, that's no surprise, KUCR is basically a money laundering institution for research dollars. Like the mob, it has some nice things about it, like having money to give. Also like the mob, they can do what they want to researchers without fear of reprisal. This includes withholding funds, messing up the lives of grad students, and screwing up project deadlines.

No, I've never, ever had to work with KUCR in the past. Really. I swear.

Wilbur_Nether 7 years, 8 months ago

This is fairly typical across academia, and recognized as a legitimate practice. Most grants are designed with this sort of overhead built in. Comparisons to the mob are neither accurate, appropriate, nor useful for dialogue. Lay-offs of administrative staff or others in the regents systems would be a band-aid approach. The grants process would have to be regulated--and do we really want more federal laws and oversight?

RealWorld 7 years, 8 months ago

We need to ask Dr. Roberts how much he makes as President of this non-profit. Also, does he get this income in conjunction with his income as a University employee. How much money are these people making (i.e. Jordan Yochim) and the director of the museum? Maybe they could take a pay cut to help fund research?

wagenseil 7 years, 8 months ago

As noted, the 44% figure is totally standard for public institutions; private institutions (MIT, Stanford) tend to charge higher (much higher until about a decade ago, when audits pulled them down). Technically, every cent of this has to be justified -- the accounts are audited by the Feds every five years or so -- though in reality the general ballpark figure is used. This was implemented decades ago during the early Cold War when the Feds decided to get universities into the research business, having been inspired by the research successes of World War II.

KU's situation is not unique -- the issue really driving this is that Federal discretionary spending is now going to pay the costs of the Iraq War, which are hugely higher, and lasting longer, than originally projected. So research funds that the Bush administration had originally said that they would increase -- notably the National Institutes for Health -- are instead flat. KU has run into big-time bad luck in completing a very expensive capital investment, MR-B, at precisely the point when the funds dried up, and the consequences of this may be substantial.

RealWorld 7 years, 8 months ago

Some time ago LJWorld published the income on a number of these people. Many of whom make more that $100,000.

Godot 7 years, 8 months ago

"The grants process would have to be regulated--and do we really want more federal laws and oversight?"

In this case, definitely.

Godot 7 years, 8 months ago

The author did not mention the grants that were lost, or not won, in the past year.

Godot 7 years, 8 months ago

What happens to the money that the licensing of inventions generates?

as in this:

mick 7 years, 8 months ago

Obtaining Federal Grant money is seen as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end such as actally getting something worthwhile out of "research." It is basically a jobs program for the privileged.

Mark Jakubauskas 7 years, 8 months ago

Federal grant dollars are getting increasingly tighter. NASA is drying up. EPA is drying up. Other agencies are suffering cutbacks. Those federal grant dollars support a lot of people in this town - professors, students, staff, all of whom pay taxes and spend money in town. KU's overhead rate is, as someone noted already, not out of line with any other university in the country - and it's not that KU's researchers aren't bringing in the $$ - it's more that the increase wasn't as big as was projected.

nobody1793 7 years, 8 months ago

Revenues from technology licences are typically spilt 1/3 to the inventor(s), 1/3 to thier school/departments, and 1/3 to the University.

VintageTruth 7 years, 8 months ago

Please note that Dr. Jakubauskas is a professor at the University of Kansas in the Department of Geography.

Abuse of funds is a significant problem throughout academia. The main issue is the academic industry is unfit to monitor the expenditures of fellow colleagues. Abuses are often overlooked because it would result in a 'black-balling' by fellow colleagues. Science relies on collaboration. It is difficult (if not impossible) to point your colleagues inappropreiate expenditures if you hope to have a career of any significance. Science is a very small community. If you get the reputation of a whistle-blower...your career is done! I hope LJWorld will consider doing a story on the mis-use of research money.

The fact thatt 44 percent overhead is typical in a majority of tier 1 institutions is a mute point.

nobody1793 7 years, 8 months ago

The F&A funding shortage has nothing to do with HOW researchers spend their funds. KUCR scrutinizes purchases thoroughly, and grants are audited quite often. I've dealt with colleagues at other major universities and KUCR is actually much more "on the ball" than some other research offices.

VintageTruth 7 years, 8 months ago

Then open up the books to the public audit for confirmation.

nobody1793 7 years, 8 months ago

Contact NSF. They did ours last summer.

Mark Jakubauskas 7 years, 8 months ago

Vintage Truth:
Correction: I am a research associate professor in the Kansas Biological Survey, and have a partial teaching appointment in the Environmental Studies Program. The Department of Geography does not pay any portion of my salary, nor do I hold an appointment there.

Overhead rates charged by the private sector (consultants, private research companies) to the federal government can range far higher, up to 100-200% of direct costs. University research is actually one of the best research expenditures made by the federal government.

VintageTruth 7 years, 8 months ago

The people at NSF are colleagues also. Who do you think you are kidding?

VintageTruth 7 years, 8 months ago

Dr. Jakubauskas...I only used information listed on your website.

Mark Jakubauskas 7 years, 8 months ago

Hmmmm.....better update that. Basically correct, but need to add the Environmental Studies part, and update the picture...............

Kontum1972 7 years, 7 months ago

there is also a WAR on...gotta kill those terrorists..!

and the CEO of Occidental Petroleum makes 1 million dollars a day plus perks.....

and lou perkins makes a buttload of money too..

sports--research---sports--research.....WAR....hmmmm! u decide....!

wagenseil 7 years, 7 months ago

Federal audits of research spending and indirect costs -- the 44% -- are quite serious (and time-consuming), and a number of institutions have gotten in major trouble for this in the past. Congress is also constantly scrutinizing these expenditures, NSF in particular (albeit usually with a political rather than a scientific agenda, and this habit long pre-dates the Bush administration). Is every single dollar spent flawlessly? -- of course not. Is the system as bad as, say, the waste of funds by Halliburton and SAIC in the defense sector (also tax money), or Enron and WorldCom (publicly-held corporations) -- rather unlikely.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 7 months ago

It seems as if Dr. Roberts is surprised that research dollars are drying up. Odd, given that I have been reading for the last five years that a research dollar crunch was looming, given tightening budgets at granting agencies and large expansion of research efforts at universities in the past 10 years. Fewer dollars, more research labs.

One would hope/expect that a Vice Provost of Research would be aware of such national trends.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 7 months ago

The author of this article wrote: "The idea was that the building would be paid for with overhead from research dollars, instead of state tax dollars. Although research dollars are harder to come by, the bonds still must be paid."

Simple economics that I hope were not lost on KCUR. However, the University was forced to do this because the state legislature has failed in it's responsibility to maintain a high-quality institution.

VintageTruth 7 years, 7 months ago

wagensiel: The University is well aware of inappropriate spending by tenured faculty.

Godot 7 years, 7 months ago

When does Kansas benefit from its funding of KU research?

As tremendous as the RFID invention may be, the fact is that is was licensed to a California company. California will get the jobs and tax revenue, and the royalties will go to KU and the inventor. The article about the RFID state that royalties will go toward seeding new research projects.

How do Kansas taxpayers win? They help support the research, the invention goes to California where jobs and taxes are created, the "profit" goes back into more research that will require more support from Kansas taxpayers.

When do we get a break?

Why isn't the "profit" returned, at least in part, to the Kansas taxpayers? Why doesn't the University announce that, because of the brilliance of its research staff, that Kansas taxpayers will have to pay less to support the educational mission of the university?

It might be smoke and mirrors, but it would generate some positive PR.

budwhysir 7 years, 7 months ago

Save that money, fix those buildings. Could we raise taxes to show we want to fix this problem already. Come on people get with the program. I mean what is a university without teachers??? And afterall isnt that what the article is about, more money for more spending on more tax breaks

jaydocky 7 years, 7 months ago

Those grants pay the salaries at the med center. Without them, there will be few staff to teach the increasing class size, and the new fancy KLSIC building will be foreclosed. And KUMC is better off than most med schools. If the NIH budget does not increase soon, most medical schools will be in serious financial trouble. No new docs for aging baby boomers? Well, at least they train a lot of them in India, and med school is virtually free there.

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