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Dwindling federal funding and unsupportive policies harm U’s research function

In recent years, University of Minnesota administrators have repeatedly stated that one of their top goals is to make our university one of the nation’s best public research universities. As faculty responsible for research in our own areas of expertise at the university, we wholeheartedly agree with that endeavor: It is our work, after all, that could lead to critical breakthroughs on the greatest challenges facing society, be it cancer, climate change, or food safety and security.

Mindy Kurzer

Unfortunately, our ability to achieve that goal is at risk. In a recent survey completed by over 300 of our fellow research academics at the university and released in a report [PDF] last Thursday by MN Academics United and SEIU Local 284, faculty and other researchers report that University of Minnesota research suffers from dwindling federal funding and unsupportive university policies.

Federal support for university-based research has been on the decline for decades when adjusted for inflation, and cratered sharply in the last 10 years. The portion of the total federal budget dedicated to research has declined from 12 percent to 4 percent since 1965. From 2005 to 2015, overall research spending across federal agencies fell $21 billion, or 13 percent, in constant 2015 dollars.

Don Wyse

We rely heavily on federal funding to conduct our work and fulfill our research mission at the university, so as a result of these funding cuts the amount of time we spend applying for funding from tenuous sources has increased: 62 percent of survey respondents responsible for securing research funding said that the amount of time they spend doing so has increased during their career.

More competition for funds

Our day-to-day experiences reflect the uncertainty and strain associated with applying for and securing federal grants. With increased competition for a dwindling pot of available funds, we spend more time on grant applications and grant-required paperwork, and less time on the vital research to which we have dedicated our careers. Every year, we submit excellent, innovative proposals for which there is insufficient funding; we are throwing away good ideas.

This can and does compromise our research, and it has led some academic researchers to leave their field altogether. In the survey, 74 percent of respondents responsible for funding applications reported that their ability to secure funds has (or has possibly) changed the direction or specialization of their research. When the chase for dollars changes the course of scientific inquiry, that is detrimental to our standing as academic researchers, to the University of Minnesota, and to our broader search for discoveries that benefit society.

Unfortunately, the leadership in Congress is moving in the wrong direction. Instead of ending the artificial budget sequester for good, the recent budget deal only temporarily eases the across-the-board cuts for two years, and still keeps the sequester in place for future years, extending it through 2025. Instead of increasing federal funding for critical research, we face politically motivated restrictions for publicly funded research on topics like climate change. We urge our federal delegation to reject these ideological limits to scientific research, end the budget sequester, and reverse the decades-long slide in research funding.

Only 40% feel research is adequately supported

Our survey also showed that just 40 percent of academic researchers at the U of M feel they have adequate support to effectively fulfill their research mission or have enough educated and trained staff to perform their research at the desired capacity. The university is also not seen as transparent in how it uses the typical 1/3 off-the-top cut of every research dollar we secure in the form of overhead charges. This is of great concern to us: If these funds are not being spent appropriately on research-related overhead expenses, then they should be redirected to our on-the-ground work.

These challenges demonstrate why research academics at the University of Minnesota are coming together with other faculty to form a union. We need a real voice in shared governance at the university to address detrimental policies and an overall lack of transparency, as well as a stronger collective voice as academic researchers to advocate for adequate public investment. We share the administration’s goal of becoming a premier public research university; now, we intend to ensure that academic researchers will have the power to do so and continue to drive Minnesota’s economic growth.

Mindy Kurzer, Ph.D., is a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition. Don Wyse, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/18/2015 - 08:55 am.

    I Would Think that American Pharmaceutical Companies

    would work to remedy this situation since,…

    contrary to their claims regarding the cost of research being behind their outrageous drug prices,…

    MOST of their new products and product lines are based on research carried out at public research universities.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/19/2015 - 10:53 am.

    the U of M needs that one third cut off the top…

    … Because an over-bloated administrative hierarchy costs a lot to maintain!

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/19/2015 - 01:43 pm.

    There are a lot of problems with this article.

    One of the most striking – to me – was:

    “The university is also not seen as transparent in how it uses the typical 1/3 off-the-top cut of every research dollar we secure in the form of overhead charges.”

    The problem with this statement is explained with numbers elsewhere but it is a bit, as Paul Krugman would say, wonkish:

    On The Hidden Cost of Research
    link: http://ptable.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-hidden-cost-of-research-michael.html

    The short version is: the cost of a grant PLUS whatever overhead is obtained is LESS than the actual cost of the university to do it. (If you won’t take my word for it, read the link and tell me where is the flaw in the analysis.)

    In 2010, the University obtained $823 million from outside sources for research. Unreimbursed costs for research totaled $185 million.

    So the overhead money that the U brings in is not some little “gift” from the government or other donors that the administration is gobbling up.

    Now it took some time for the admin to finally admit this, because they used to argue that bringing in new grants would help to pay for new buildings. (Information available upon request.) That tune stopped when Dr. Tim Mulcahy finally admitted that research grants COST money in ADDITION to overhead.

    Senate Research Committee
    Monday, March 22, 2010
    link: http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/61936/10-03-22%20SRC.pdf?sequence=1

    Finally, I am a union guy myself. But I don’t see what unionization is going to do to make things any better. And the last time a unionization vote came up at UMTC, it lost, even though the reasons for the vote were very good ones. My personal opinion is that the UMTC will never unionize, again for a variety of reason not worth going into here. I remind faculty at UMTC that UMDuluth is unionized. Recall what happened to our colleagues last year during the Duluth shortfall.

    Bill Gleason
    retired U of M faculy and alum

  4. Submitted by Lawrence Baker on 11/23/2015 - 06:16 pm.

    the problem is much broader than helping U professors

    The problem with declining federal research dollars isn’t that university faculty aren’t receiving adequate funding to support their interests, it is that society isn’t gaining the knowledge that this research could provide.

    We therefore miss the opportunity to develop cutting edge new technologies that could fuel the economy. We also nudge industry toward basic research to fill the void – resulting in patents for basic knowledge that only they can then profit from. In the public sector, the lack of research often means that expensive programs with good intentions do not achieve their goals because they are based on flawed knowledge. I offer trhe example of agricultural nonpoint source pollution as an area where we have failed miserably, in large part because we have not made a concerted effort to gain the knowledge we need – via research – to really solve the problem.

    We should not be shrinking government, but making it more efficient. Solid research is an excellent example of how a bit MORE government could greatly improve society. Sometimes, a few million in research can save many billions later.

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