Study tackles challenges of US research universities

Facing increasing pressures and declining funding, institutions seek solutions for sustainability

<a target='_blank' href=''>The Current Health and Future Well-Being of the American University</a>

A new study identifying key challenges facing US research universities finds the future of public and private institutions more uncertain than at any other time in the last 50 years.

Research administrators at 25 top research-intensive public and private universities participated in a year-long, campus-by campus study to investigate the approaches institutions are adopting to maintain high-performing programs amid mounting economic and political pressures. This independent study was conducted by the Research Universities Futures Consortium and funded by Elsevier.

A primary goal of the 66-page report, The Current Health and Future Well-Being of the American University, is to start a national discussion identifying the strategies needed to ensure the continued leadership of US research universities so the US can maintain its global competitive advantage, said study leader Dr. Brad Fenwick, professor and former Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who recently joined Elsevier as Senior VP of Global Strategic Alliances.

Brad Fenwick, DVM, PhDThe study found that declining funding, increasing competition from academic institutions worldwide, intensifying compliance requirements from the federal government, and loss of political and public confidence in the value of academic research have placed great strains on American research universities. The situation has been exacerbated at the public universities that have had to manage major reductions in their state funding while facing public and political pressure to minimize tuition increases. At the same time, the expectations for scientific research to produce solutions to today's global challenges have never been higher.

US research institutions are not alone in facing such pressures, and many of the findings are applicable to institutions across the globe. However, the study points to multiple pressures that are converging to create the perfect storm in the US. While the research environment demands higher levels of efficiency and productivity from individual researchers, increasing pressures are also placed on administrative personnel, who have to do more with static or decreasing resources.

"Part of the concern is that we are floating into the future without a map," Dr. Fenwick said. "We don't want to look back and say we had a great national asset in our research universities that has been lost."

Now, the Consortium will focus on developing  "realistic and sustainable solutions" to key barriers identified in the report, Dr. Fenwick said.

The challenges

The report identified six core challenges:

  1. A hypercompetitive environment, due to scarce resources, has increased the difficulty of managing academic research activities.
  2. Increased government regulations and reporting requirements, without funding support, exacerbate pressure on administrators and divert valuable faculty time from research.
  3. Assessment and impact analysis relies on departments or colleges rather than being done in a systematic fashion at the institutional level.
  4. Enabling research with the highest impact requires current and predictive data to assess programs and evaluate key opportunities in a resource-constrained environment.
  5. While universities have developed a range of systems and processes to collect and evaluate research information, many of these efforts are inadequate or insufficiently credible to support well-informed strategic decisions.
  6. The fragility of research administration and leadership is not fully understood in the university community or by sponsors and stakeholders. As the number and complexity of research programs increase, the capacity of systems and operational support often lags, putting the institution's research enterprise at risk.

Susan Wyatt Sedwick, PhD"Research institutions, pretty much across the board, are having the same challenges and struggles we are experiencing," said Dr. Susan Wyatt Sedwick, Associate VP for Research and Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects at the University of Texas at Austin. She said the study demonstrates that "we are all trying to figure out how to best allocate our resources to meet our goals and objectives."

'An arms race' for funding

Dr. Tom Parks, VP for Research at the University of Utah, described the competition for research funding as "an arms race where the requirements keep getting elevated."

Tom Parks, PhDInstead of an individual researcher, it now takes multi-disciplinary collaborative teams of researchers to compete successfully for funding, Parks said. "The pressure is to be great at everything, and that is what we all want to be doing, but we are limited by resources," he explained. "Fewer and fewer universities can field strong researchers in teams across the range of disciplines that are required."

The challenge is worldwide, but some countries have better defined roles for different kinds of universities, Parks said. "In our generosity and enthusiasm to do everything everywhere, we have encouraged lots of universities to be active in high-level research, and that may not be possible to sustain with the funds available."

Compounding the problem in the US is the fact that federal, state and industry sponsors of research do not pay its full cost, Dr. Parks said. "Universities are struggling to maintain their faculty, administration and infrastructure by shifting resources as best they can to permit the best quality research across the full range of what they do," he explained.

A new report by the National Research Council of the National Academies, commissioned by Congress, recommends increased investments by federal and state governments and industry to protect America's research universities. US research and development expenditures have fluctuated between 2.5 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP over the last three decades, while China's grew by 20 percent per year between 1996 and 2007, the report points out.

According to the report, state cuts in appropriations to public research universities, often the economic drivers and cultural centers of the state, are estimated to have averaged 25 percent between 2002 and 2010, and range as high as 50 percent.

What happens when the federal government retrenches?

Greg Reed, PhDThe University of Tennessee, where 91% of the research funding originates with the federal government, exemplifies the vulnerability of public institutions. "There is not much in our portfolio that is not connected to what happens in Washington, DC," said Dr. Greg Reed, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research. Most of the money from state agencies was given to them by the federal government to disperse, he said. Corporations that subcontract to the university generally received contracts to do exploratory work on behalf of some federal agency, Reed added.

"Some would report that as corporate money because it came directly from the corporation to the university," he said. "But if you dig back you realize that only half of corporate funding was the corporation's own money. The other half was the federal government's. If the federal government stops giving that money, will the corporation make up the difference or only fund projects at the level of their portion?"

At state universities, where the only control over funding support is through tuition, many have already maxed out what the market will bear, and the rest of are headed in that direction.

"Public universities now have the downside of tight regulation and control with none of the upside, which used to be generous state funding," said Dr. Charles F. Louis, Vice Chancellor for Research Emeritus at the University of California Riverside. "They've got the worst of both worlds."

Although many look to industry to fill the gap, income from licensing agreements and royalty revenues fall far short of meeting the need, Dr. Parks said. Industry spends most of its research money internally, he explained. Typically, universities get about 6% of their research funding from industry, a situation that has not changed much in the last two decades. Utah, with its "robust commercialization enterprise," gets 11%, but it has a $3 billion university budget, he said.

Despite the clear threat to US competitiveness brought on by the money crunch, increases in federal and state government funding are unlikely, Consortium members agree.

Dr. Louis attended the recent Congressional subcommittee hearing on the role research institutions play in national security and economic prosperity and described the response of legislators.

"While no one disagreed with the preeminence and importance of US research, the few Congressmen who were present in the room made it clear that at best, science funding would remain flat," Dr. Louis said.

Making the most of shrinking resources

Among the goals of the study is the sharing of ways universities have organized their research administration and program development efforts and how these initiatives are functioning.

Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, PhDDr. Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, Senior VP of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University, speaks enthusiastically about the increased innovation and efficiency underway, from reducing the burden of paperwork on faculty through increased automation and administrative efficiency, to assembling interdisciplinary teams to be more competitive in securing grants.

Arizona State also encourages faculty and student entrepreneurship, with an emphasis on obtaining patents and bringing laboratory discoveries to market.

"We want to insure that the research we conduct is of value to the society at large," Dr. Panchanathan said.

At the University of Utah, mentoring and support for researchers preparing grant proposals has made a big difference, Dr. Parks said. "There is evidence that certain kinds of proposal development and mentoring can increase success rates for grants, and it's not terribly expensive."

The University of Tennessee is looking at ways to create multi-disciplinary research activities and increase common use of facilities, equipment and services on its own campus and in collaboration with other universities to reduce the net cost of a project, Dr. Reed said.

Exploring solutions

In its next phase, the Consortium will explore solutions to commonly shared challenges as well as ways to implement and evaluate those solutions.

Opinions on which of the six core barriers to success deserve priority vary among consortium members. However, those identified most frequently are: the pressures resulting from increasing reporting requirements with non-recoverable costs, the need for standardized performance metrics and predictive data to guide the investment of resources, and the need to gain better public understanding of the crucial role research universities play in the wellbeing of our nation.

"In the US data is largely absent from the research enterprise when it comes to making investment," said Dr. Louis, who advocates the development of standardized performance metrics and predictive data. "Universities need to get beyond measuring the number of publications and grants awarded and look more at the total cost of research."

The extensive use of such data within the centralized system in the United Kingdom has lowered the cost of doing research compared with the US, Dr. Louis said.

"It gets to the need for a national strategy identifying the greatest needs for investment in basic research," he said.

Dr. Reed agrees that the absence of consistent, national data makes it difficult for universities to pre-plan shifts in investment.

"We need a national benchmarking system so we can do forecasting that might be considered reliable in terms of making decisions," Dr. Reed said. "A national database that measured the outcomes of research could save money because it would determine where the real impact is."

Wiser investment by universities is now essential, Dr. Louis said, because institutions are spending an increasing portion of their own resources to cover the full cost of research. Sponsors cover about 75% of the cost, with the universities subsidizing the rest, he said.

Dr. Sedwick, who is responsible for compliance with research data reporting requirements at The University of Texas at Austin, said the continued expansion of requirements without the means to recover the cost of meeting them reduces the university's ability to carry out research because it has to spend more of its own funds to meet those requirements.

She cited a 2005 survey by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, which she chairs, that found that federally funded researchers spend 42 percent of their research time performing administrative tasks associated with compliance and reporting requirements. An update of that survey, due out in 2013, will look at differences by discipline.

"We are at a tipping point," Dr. Sedwick said. "We are operating under financial constraints set 20 years ago when the cap on administrative costs were established, and it is unrealistic to believe that we can continue to absorb additional administrative requirements."

The consequences of inaction

The strains on university research in the US are already apparent in the "accelerating decline in the proportion of US-authored scientific papers appearing in premier journals," Dr. Louis said. But much like global climate change, it may take several decades before the profound damage becomes clear, he said.

"New products will be created, but that will be happening elsewhere," Dr. Louis said. "It will lead to a diminution of the US economy."

As suggested by the report, Dr. Sedwick agrees that universities must do a better job of explaining to the public that the effects of research being conducted today will ripple out across decades in terms of their impact on US science and society.

"Universities are being challenged with showing how productive they are," she said. "But that is hard to quantify in the short term because it is incremental in the way it accrues. We may only realize the benefit of basic research done today in 10 to 20 years."

This summer the Consortium will decide on which of the core challenges to tackle. The development of solutions will begin in the fall.

Dr. Fenwick hopes the group's efforts will engender a broad discussion of the need for a cohesive research strategy, supporting a national research and innovation agenda. "Most countries have such a strategy that makes their research universities strong," he said. "We have no national strategy like that."[divider]

The Author

Susan ElanSusan Elan received a Master of Public Health degree this spring from the New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice. Previously, she covered politics and government at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She is fluent in French.[/note]

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