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2013 May 19

On labs moving from UC to private colleges

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:30
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Chris Newfield, starts his blog post UCLA Loses LONI: Why Budget Silence Is Bad for Science ~ Remaking the University with

There’s been much local coverage of two principal investigators switching from UCLA to USC, and taking with them an estimated 85 people from UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI). The Los Angeles Times has run two stories about it, one of which received over 120 reader comments, and the story was Larry Mantle’s lead on his Airtalk show at KPCC, where he had one of the two departing faculty members as his guest.

But beyond a big win for the Trojans over the Bruins, why should the public care?

He goes on with an analysis of the importance and the cost of doing science research at UC, pointing out that the particular PIs lured away were very highly compensated:

I don’t know LONI’s equipment and infrastructure issues at UCLA, but the only publicized financial information was of the leaders’ salaries: over $1 million / year for Prof. Toga, over $420,000 for Prof. Thompson. A good number of highly qualified people will line up for jobs like these.

I had much the same reaction—those are not public university salaries.  A dozen top-notch assistant and associate professors could be hired for what those two were paid.  USC is welcome to sink their money into hiring big names—perhaps they could hire away all the athletic coaches from UCB and UCLA as well (please).

Chris got a lot of flak in the comments for his simile about the cost of doing research:

Public universities can’t fully support their grants because extramural funding doesn’t cover the full cost of research.  Labs burn money like a jet burns fuel, which is what they are supposed to do.  LONI spent $12 million a year, as a case in point. 

$12 million dollars for 85 people is only $141k per person.  Given the huge salaries of the PIs (not to mention the costs of their benefits), the expenditure per person for the other 83 was under $125k, and salaries were probably less than half that (given the necessary costs for reagents, equipment, travel, publication charges, benefits, …).  So most of the lab was making only modest salaries—only the PIs were raking in the dough.

Chris ended with 4 conclusions:

  1. UCLA’s core problem is a funding shortage, not surplus bureaucracy. (UCLA is the wealthiest UC campus, so things only get worse from there). 
  2. Public universities need to tell the truth about research funding.  This will include the facts that science loses money, that some portion of undergraduate tuition funds offset research costs, and that most funding doesn’t “produce” anything in the near-term, except findings [for] more research along with a great deal of useful failure.
  3. Public universities need to explain why research like LONI’s should be to some large extent at public universities.  Why does it matter to the science, to the public impact, to the education of the next generation of scientists? Perhaps there is more openness and accountability at publics, and therefore more innovation. Perhaps scientists at public universities have a better feel for public needs and do more useful research.  Perhaps public universities uniquely have the necessary scale to train the thousands and millions of researchers in all fields to solve our ever-mounting problems.  We now need a new theory of public universities, before things get even worse.
  4. Universities both private and public need to open up  discussion of spending priorities to their academic communities.  Given rising costs and shrinking revenues, choices have to be made. They  need to involve the faculty, from all disciplines, and students of all levels.  This is as true of USC as of UCLA, which has a poor record of consultation and can only buy a limited number of LONI-type labs with (in part) student tuition and non-STEM cross-subsidies.  Privates can now raise tuition only so much. Academic choices need to come from a bottom-up debate of a kind that higher ed has never had.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments to his post, mainly pushback on point 2, as STEM faculty see their overhead being spent on everything in the university except the proper indirect expenses that it is supposed to go for, while Chris looked at the overall expenditure on support for science research and the income from indirect costs.  I think that a lot of the discrepancy comes from the cost of new buildings for science labs, which are very, very expensive, but cannot be charged to grants.

I’m in agreement with Chris that UC has done a very poor job of making a good case for research in the public universities, talking about it mainly as a revenue stream or in PR terms as enhancing the image of the university.

In one of Chris’s comments, he restates his main point as a desire for greater budget transparency:

So my suggestion as always is that faculty across the disciplines stop being cynical about “byzantine accounting” and push for full data on funding flows—universities can’t even start the negotiations for ICR rates without this accounting to show federal agencies—let the chips fall where they may, and then have an involved discussion based on actual budgetary facts about what to do. My position is always that I do not want cuts to STEM research. I want research to be fully funded. The patchwork we have doesn’t work any more—for any field. Things will continue to deteriorate unless we can drop our longstanding mental habits get clarity on how our own institutions work .

I think that greater clarity in how funds flow around the university would be helpful—particularly to those of us at the underfunded campuses (UCB and UCL have long gotten far more than a fair share of state funds and tuition dollars, and even the “rebenching” now in progress has been carefully designed to perpetuate the inequity).  If the research grants are not paying what the research costs the University, then indirect costs need to be raised, or the state needs to provide explicit support for research to cover the costs, or the University has to make a much, much better case that undergrads benefit from the research and so their tuition should be used to cover the shortfall.

I think that the case for undergrad benefit is quite different on different campuses and even in different majors.

For example, in the bioengineering major at UCSC, all the undergrads do research, either individually with faculty, postdocs, and grad students, or as part of a group project supervised by faculty.  They use equipment and labs funded by research grants and get a lot of high-contact instruction in these projects that could not be duplicated without the money brought in from federal grants, grants from non-profits, and even industrial research contracts.  Some of the undergrad students in the bioengineering major are doing exceptional research, and all are being very well prepared for grad school.  I have no trouble asserting that these students are benefiting substantially from the active research programs in biomolecular engineering and molecular biology.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been visiting colleges to find a good place for my son to apply in computer science (see College tours around LA and UC Berkeley college tour), and neither UCB nor UCLA had much involvement of undergrads in computer science research. I’d have a hard time telling a student whose smallest class in their major had over 50 students and most upper division courses had 200, that research opportunities for 5–10% of the undergrad students were a good deal for them. (To be fair, this may be more discipline-specific than campus-specific, as the computer science department at UCSC also seems to have less involvement of undergrads in research than the other engineering departments.)

It is not clear to me whether student tuition is supporting the research mission or research grants are supporting student instruction.  I’ve seen arguments for both, and I don’t really believe any of the arguments are really solidly based on facts.  The UC budget is such a tangled web of inconsistencies that people can read anything into it that they want.

Although UC has certainly failed on budget transparency, I think that the bigger discussion that has been missing is Chris’s point 3, explaining why research is an essential part of the mission of some public universities.  Obviously it is not essential for all (neither the community college system nor the California State University system have research as a major part of their missions), but UC administration and faculty have never made a clear case to the public of the need for research in a public university.  I think that it is time to do so, but I don’t know that I can put together a clear case for it—certainly not to the point where I could say how much of student tuition should be going to support the research mission.

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