But beyond a big win for the Trojans over the Bruins, why should the public care?
The basics are that USC courted and successfully lured LONI’s director, Arthur Toga, and one of its nine listed faculty, Paul Thompson, along with what Larry Gordon and Eryn Brown report in the Los Angeles Times as most of the lab’s academic staff. As is usually the case in this kind of move:
- The academic domain is in one or more superhot areas of research, in this case, the intersection of neuroscience and big data.
- The principals are said to be among the best in the world, and their presence expected to be “transformative,” in the term of the USC president.
- The scientists need a new building.
- No one on either side will explain the business deal or talk financial specifics.
- Everyone praises competition as normal and good for science. Prof. Thompson told Larry Mantle that UCLA would recruit great new people to replace those who depart.
- The quoted public university official states that the loss is not related to cuts to public funding.
- Everyone else thinks the departure is related to cuts in public funding.
everytime a public institution competes with private, the public one will always lose. The public will always equate anything public with greedy government workers and will resent money going to support what they consider unproductive and unaccountable bureaucrats. The public does not distinguish between productive government ventures and those that are a drain on taxpayers. (“awunganyi” May 10)In a follow-up story, the chair of the UC Academic Senate, Robert Powell, said that the exit has “reinforced my fears that Sacramento is not paying enough attention to the research mission of UC.”
True, Sacramento doesn’t pay enough attention to UC research. But no one has spelled out the loss to the public in this move of an excellent neuro-imaging lab. What is the loss here exactly?
There’s a hit to the UCLA brand. Brand matters to fundraising, to personnel recruitment, and to grant writing. It is widely assumed that the best people with the most job offers will chose to go to the richest and scientifically hottest place. UCLA has some repair work to do.
There’s a hit to the status of UC and of public universities in general. This is a loss to the image of public universities as being as good as the best. More people than ever assume that even UC is reverting to the mean in which public means mediocre and private means the best.
But both of these losses are fairly easy to dismiss. Universities are now ranked like sports teams, and UCLA will focus on winning the next game. UCLA apparently didn’t even take the field for this last one—Profs. Toga and Thompson didn’t ask the UCLA department chair to make a counteroffer. Prof. Thompson was eloquent on Airtalk about the benefits to the discipline overall to have a concentrated facility with a great infrastructure, and promised ongoing synergy with colleagues doing related work at UCLA. Any damage to research seems temporary at worst. USC may have made a strategic long-term decision to be great in this area and to do what it takes, thus doing more for neuro-imagery than UCLA wants to do. And UCLA had already done quite a bit. 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.
Here we get to a deeper loss: public understanding of the costs of science. The public salary numbers are the only thing Californians know about the money behind this deal. When a UCSD lab moved to Rice University two years ago, one of the departing scientists helpfully explained that UC was facing a “support gap” in future years that would reduce the science they could do there. But usually, and in this case, all the relevant facts about science funding are kept behind a veil of silence.
(In 2007, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust told a BusinessWeek reporter that public universities would have a hard time keeping up in research financing. She was publicly rebuked by the Big 10 presidents. Since then, virtually no family financial business has been mentioned outside the family.)
Part I of the missing storyline is this. Public research universities can no longer fully support all the science grants their excellent faculty can get. I get stories about absurd shortages of photocopier cartridges and arguments about phone charges from labs at every campus in the system. They seem to me to be frequent and annoying enough to threaten productivity and morale.
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. This is peanuts for JP Morgan or the military, but a lot for a university. As I’ve noted in various posts, universities have to add in on average 25 cents of their “internal funds” for every dollar in extramural grants. Public universities just don’t have the internal funds to do this like they used to. The economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman calculated that public university expenditures have fallen from 70 cents on the dollar spent by their private peers 30 years ago to about 50 cents today (p 237-38).
In addition, these labs need advanced facilities and in some cases equipment that they can’t charge to grants. USC will build LONI a new building, one that will support other research as well. In the case two years ago of a UCSD lab that moved to Rice University, Rice was providing space in a building that had cost it (and Texas taxpayers) north of $140 million. USC is likely to be doing something similar.
On Airtalk, Prof. Thompson said that they must get one-third of their funding from non-governmental sources. This puts additional strain on a public university fundraising operation that is also trying to find money for graduate fellowships to replace cut state funds. USC undoubtedly told Toga-Thompson that in contrast to UCLA, USC would put LONI at the head of the fundraising line. They may have named likely seven- and eight-figure donors were the lab to move. But labs like LONI depend on what falls from those trees. USC also charges three times the tuition that UCLA does, which is another source of funds. LONI is a big stick with which to beat the fundraising tree. Large public universities can’t fund the same level of background infrastructure or full-court fundraising for each and every one of its special projects.
The next part involves this comment about how USC is entrepreneurial and UCLA is bureaucratic. When Larry Mantle asked about this (about 16:00), Prof Thompson replied that in fact, “he didn’t see any bureaucracy: at UCLA, which is a wonderful place and gave him his career. What USC did have was a team with the “vision and experience” to manage the logistics for a complex move of 100 people. Here’s my translation:
- USC has a central administration on campus. UCLA has UCOP in Oakland.
- USC had a bigger bureaucracy to throw at one lab, not a smaller one.
- USC was planning a move that was going to happen. UCLA was managing a large research ecosystem. (LONI wouldn’t make UCLA Medicine’s list of 10 biggest problems to solve today until it was approached with an offer, which it wasn’t.)
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.
If we can’t do (1), show public efficiency (poorer but smarter, more research with less money, more degrees for each faculty member [page 16]), the public has no reason to support rebuilt public funding.
If we can’t do (2), tell the truth about funding, the public will keep thinking that science supports itself and doesn't need state money. Funding will stay flat or fall, and the public university research ecology will get gradually weaker.
If we can’t do (3), say why public is often better than private, the public will be happy to see high-end science like neuro-imaging as done by the 1% for the 1%, and expect the 0.01% to pay for it with charitable donations.
If we can't do (4), achieve common understanding of resource choices, most public university students and faculty won't miss the LONIs as much as they should.