The MinnPost Community Voices essay “Dwindling Federal Funding and Unsupportive Policies Harm U’s Research Function,” by Mindy Kurzer and Don Wyse, raises issues of great importance to the public that should be widely discussed. I agree with the authors that research advances the well-being of society and that the University of Minnesota needs to be pre-eminent in contributing new knowledge. Science and human progress have flourished in our competitive funding environment. Yet competition today is excessively fierce, funding has been cut, important discoveries will not be made, and the prospects for improvement in research funding appear short-term.
To help the public and policymakers understand the crisis, MinnPost publishes stories about the role of research in advancing the common good. Indeed, read Susan Perry’s many insightful articles in her “Second Opinion” blog. Unfortunately, Kurzer and Wyse fall short of recognizing how research advances the common good and how it is supported.
The essay reports U of M faculty views of the research climate (“The State of Research Funding and Support at the University of Minnesota” reported by the University of Minnesota Academics United (UMAU)). I was a respondent and do not agree that the data provide a mandate for unionization as a solution to the national research funding shortfall. The authors and the UMAU never explain how a union would serve to increase research funding when the largest source and greatest cutbacks are federal.
Many professional associations, which are national in scope, currently lobby professionally and aggressively. Virtually all University of Minnesota faculty belong to such organizations, many of which have memberships in the tens of thousands. Indeed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science serves 10 million individuals around the world. Professional associations strive to advance members’ area of research and provide outreach to policymakers and opinion leaders. Exactly what would a union do to strengthen these initiatives? How would a union embrace a mission of science in the public interest balanced with advancing the economic well-being of its members?
The U of M’s Bridge Funds
The article makes the case that many University of Minnesota faculty are dissatisfied with research support provided by the university. Unfortunately, the authors do not mention the university’s investment in research during recent years. I do not know the numbers but I believe that the university is investing in its faculty to offset the federal shortfall. Indeed, I have been the recipient of “Bridge Funds” from the Office of the Vice President of Research and my own school. Provided on a competitive basis, these funds help bridge a gap in federal research funding and help the investigator to remain competitive when reapplying for research grants.
I accept the argument that the university could do more, and I am certainly not an apologist for the university. Overhead funds from federal grants are not a likely source. Overhead rates are negotiated with funding agencies to cover the ever-increasing infrastructure costs of doing research at the University of Minnesota. Infrastructure includes compliance with complicated federal regulations providing protection for human and animal subjects, and biosafety, and oversight of grant expenditures. Running a tier I research university is expensive.
Perhaps different funding models for research need to be considered. In New Zealand, for example, faculty positions are accompanied by funds to employ a technician and purchase modest supplies, providing seed funds to foster successful, competitive national and international grants. Should the larger funding be lost, the investigator can maintain a modest level of activity and redirect and re-establish the research program. The trade-off is that salaries are low compared to those in the United States. In Minnesota, the state has funded research mandates to the university. Should the state bear greater responsibility? Can we think of other support models?
Public needs to understand potential impact
The unionization agenda ignores the greater issue. We need a political consensus to increase funding for research. Although a 2015 Pew Foundation survey suggested broad political and popular support, too many political decision makers do not appreciate that research improves the human condition. Research should be understood and embraced as a way to prevent and cure diseases, improve the environment, enhance our quality of life and make an impact on the lives of people in the developing world. Scientists, universities, schools, journalists and the media have all failed to educate the public — young and old — responsibly and fairly. Academic investigators appreciate the “wow” in science that drives their passions; little of the wonder of discovery and appreciation of the potential impact, save a few PBS shows, reaches people on the street.
The stark reality is that we as scientists and academics fail at engaging and exciting the public about new discoveries. The University of Minnesota tries to find open ears with its Driven to Discover Campaign, but the impact appears too limited. When we invite the public into our classrooms and laboratories (when safety permits), and tell our stories of discoveries as if to our families, the messages will be appreciated. An educated public is our best advocate to increase research funding. Our legislators will respond.
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