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Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

UCSD and the Crisis in Public University Research Funding

Reports surfaced today in the San Diego daily newspaper that three core members of UCSD's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics are moving to Rice University, and bringing much of their collaborative infrastructure with them. The story illustrates one of this blog's perennial themes, which is the damage being done right now by the ridiculous cuts in public funding, and by our leaders' foolish acceptance of each current massive cut as the new normal.

But the story also illustrates the vexed and subterranean relations between public universities and big science.  Nothing here amounts to a comment on the research or the individual scientists involved: the story is a structural one of high-cost research and public subsidies that must be thought through if public higher ed is going to make it to the other side.

The story is this:
The three scientists [José Onuchic, Herbert Levine and Peter Wolynes] are transferring their labs to the Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), a new center that specializes in the study of cancer in association with other Texas Medical Center institutions. The BRC arose from the $3 billion bond package that Texas voters approved in 2007 to study and treat cancer. The initiative specifically calls for the recruitment of prominent scientists. Rice says it was able to recruit Onuchic and Levine was the aide of $10 million in state money provided to the university.
Star scientists move a lot, though not so often as a team. Making this situation unusual is that one of them, Herbert Levine, explicitly named public funding cuts as a "secondary reason" for leaving:
"The major reason is that Rice has made a remarkably generous offer to my colleagues and me, both in personal terms but mainly as it concerns collective research support.

"For our biophysics center, they have offered prime space (to be built to our specs), ongoing administrative support, and facilitated access to foundations such as CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), all of which will enable us to greatly broaden the scope of our efforts and begin to study medical applicants of physical science theory.

"The current budget at UC makes it clear that this type of support is just not going to be possible here. The fact that private university funds have recovered from their 2008 lows long before state budgets are even close to balanced, has led to a "support gap" all across the country (not just California). So, I don't think that budget cuts specifically "drove us out", they are indeed a factor in our overall assessment that we will be able to do significantly more at Rice than at UCSD, over the next 5-10 years"
Unfortunately. this statement is quite accurate.  Public universities are falling woefully behind their private counterparts in the resources for their core missions of instruction and research.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust was challenged by eleven public university presidents when she even hinted about this problem in a quite interesting 2007 Business Week story called 'The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League," Now muttered fears about declining resources for public university research have become everyday reality.

An additional important detail is that the story notes that Rice, a wealthy private university with the country's fourteenth largest endowment per student, just ahead of Cal Tech's, got pivotal support funds from the state of Texas. The article notes that states have taken to stealing each others' scientists with bond packages, and that California has also done this to Texas. The deeper point is that public funding and plenty of it is essential to the the successful pursuit of advanced, socially-useful research.  The universities that are in the best position to leverage this public money are, increasingly, private universities. This doesn't change the fact that high-cost research does not make money, but requires major subsidies from the public sector.

The support gap is likely to grow wider.  This is because a large number of public university leaders have either given up on restoring the levels of public funding that made the American public university system the best in the world, or act like people who have given up, or haven't given up but are afraid to state the situation plainly, in a way politicians can understand: "either restore public funding or kill public universities as we know them, period."  At the same time, these leaders will not state the level to which tuition needs to rise to replace the lost public funding, as this blog has been forced to document on many occasions.  Research is supported both by direct funding from the extramural sponsor and by the host university, who must fill in for underpayments for overhead to the tune of an average of well above 25 cents on the dollar, or in UC's case, a net research loss of $720 million on $3.5 billion in gross revenues earned by UC's very accomplished faculty.  This research should be done, but it costs money and does not earn money.  Either we restore public funding to correct levels, or UC's research mission will decline at the same rate as undergraduate access to small-scale courses. 

The move for the UCSD professors no doubt makes intellectual sense.  It's interesting that Rice tried to build collaboration into the architecture of the facility.  But nothing will change the science's negative economics.  Rice built the BioSciences facility in the mist of a building boom within the multi-institutional Texas Medical Center that created a glut of space.  The 477,000 square foot facility opened in mid-2009 with only one tenant, and colleagues at Rice tell me that the facility continues to have problems covering costs. It appears now to have four extramural tenants.  Basic construction costs are listed as $144 million, and Rice's public financial statements report that the value of assets under construction in fiscal year 2009 was 50% of total existing assets (page 15).  This suggests an enormous financial burden even for a wealthy university.  Hence the benefit of the $10 million in Texas taxpayer money as a sweetener for prospective tenants.  It is also certain that annual public funding will be needed in the future. The research is being done for science, but also for an industry, biotechnology, in which only 13 percent of its companies are profitable, and which arguably has, as an overall industry, yet to turn a profit.

There is the further issue of sacrificial relations among disciplines within a university, as the very high costs of some squeeze out even low-cost fields elsewhere.  In 2010, Rice closed its French studies PhD, meaning that the state of Texas has only one French PhD program left, at UT-Austin.  Rice also closed its university press, which had already been on entirely digital footing, for an annual savings of $150,000-$200,000. (University presses publish books as well as journals, and books are still the primary repository of work in the human sciences.)  Rice also sold one of the campus's major cultural institutions, the student radio station KTRU (91.7), which functioned as a unique outlet for regional and innovative music.  The selling price was $9.9 million.   Of course no one took money from French and gave it to the BioSciences construction company.  That doesn't change the fact that relatively low-cost programs in the humanities and social sciences have a tendency to fall ill in the proximity of big science kryptonite.

In the Hooverized economy Gov. Jerry Schwarzenegger is helping to sustain, we have three choices.
  1. Continue to conceal and distort big science research costs as though this research raised money for universities.  This will increase internal tensions and damage or even eliminate the disciplines that are essential to solving the world's terrible social and cultural problems. 
  2. Disclose those true research costs to ourselves and the public.  Come together to convince the public and its politicians that they must correctly fund expensive research as a public necessity.
  3. Move the humanities and social sciences into separate institutions, so they can retain the funds their enrollments generate that are now in part spent on costly infrastructure of little benefit to their research or their students.
I vote for door number 2.  But if we are offered only door number 1, an increasing number of human sciences faculty will be tempted by door number 3.


cloudminder said...

in Yudof's latest testimony to the legislature in Mountain View- the key things he communicated was his concern for his "$10 Billion dollar hospital system" - he rudely differentiated UC from CSU and CCCs when he said it, almost looking down his nose at their representatives sitting next to him on the panel-

and he said he "did not see any sort of mass exodus of faculty". that is the message that was sent to Leno's committee. in another speech he tried to differentiate faculty who simply teach the current wisdom from other faculty--a merely divisive comment...

your piece is clearly written for both faculty and the general public-- both groups can understand it and clearly see the terrain, what is on the line. it is a gift not shared by those who claim to champion UC-- it is an important gift leaders need to have. that is not to polish an apple-- only saying it because the regents need to start understanding that advocating extends beyond their cocktail parties with their influential friends and we have a void in communication coming out of UC)

looking at the UC online revenue stream empire being developed-- door number 3 looks more and more like the best way to protect the faculty and students in those programs.

Gerry Barnett said...

You know, door number 3 sounds pretty good. Not only would the human sciences be able to keep the tuition and grant funding they receive, but also the administrative cost of managing humanities and arts research would be greatly reduced, in effect making significantly more direct research funding available to the humanities and arts. Further, such institutions could be led by people who share both the training and goals of the humanities and arts, so that a clear, direct case can be made to the public and to the government for what the humanities and arts offer to society.

Door number 2 merely crawls hopefully back to where things once were, three decades ago. Who remembers, now, even? But there's a wide open future for the humanities and arts with door number 3. Take door number 3, Chris--that's more exciting.

Anonymous said...

Gov. Jerry Schwarzenegger? (you mean Jerry Brown?)

Gerry Barnett said...

The conflatulation of the two names is appropriate, given that one is continuing the work of the other.

Anonymous said...

University of California San Diego UCSD. Republican, Democrat, and Tea Party you can help. The sluggish economy, 10% unemployment devastates family savings. Simply asking for more taxes (Prop 30, 32, 38) to spend on self-absorbed Cal. leadership, inefficient higher education practices, over-the-top salaries, lavish bonuses, is not the answer. Additional state tax funding must sunset:

cgifurniture said...

Great post

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