Earmarked funds sweeten university research programs

Which came first, the research or the funding?

It’s a tough question to answer for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

University officials, who label UAF the dominant research campus of the university, say UAF annually gets the bulk of the operating budget because it is the research campus. But equally true seems to be the fact that it is the research campus because it gets the bulk of the funding.

Part of the research funding comes as the result of the annual federal initiative process, a mostly noncompetitive process in which universities request earmarked funds from Congress.

“That’s where we ask Uncle Ted to give us money, to put it bluntly,” said Craig Dorman, statewide vice president for academic affairs and research.

Uncle Ted – otherwise known as Sen. Ted Stevens – has been pretty kind to the university over the years.

In fiscal year 2007, for example, $66.5 million in federal initiatives was approved for UAF, including joint projects in which funding is shared with other organizations. In contrast, UAA received $21.9 million and UAS got $4 million, also shared with other institutions.

- Advertisement -

Dorman said the unequal distribution of initiatives among the campuses is mostly because of their missions and the existing infrastructure associated with specific research. Not everyone agrees.

“Despite the fact that we are the largest campus and that we have some very talented faculty, when it comes down to this particular process – which is a controversial process in and of itself – it just seems that we’re not given the same consideration,” said Diane Hirshberg, assistant professor of education policy.

Hirshberg learned the ropes of the university’s federal initiative process a few years back when she applied for a grant to start an education policy research institute as a collaboration between the Institute of Social and Economic Research and the College of Education. She wanted to study education trends that are specific to Alaska.

The first time she applied, her proposal didn’t make it past UAA. In fall 2004, she applied again.

“I was told it was one of the best education proposals they’d seen, but it didn’t get past Statewide because they didn’t want to have competing proposals between UA Statewide and UAA,” she said.

Hirshberg said the competition was a statewide program called ACES that works on teacher mentoring and Alaska teacher placement, which are education programs, not research. In fact, she said the group often contracts with ISER to do its research here in Anchorage.

But without Statewide’s approval, such a project will never get off the ground at UAA. For her, it might never, at least using federal initiatives.

“I just don’t see any purpose,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to get the support we need to go ahead with this.”

Part of the reason for fewer research grants at UAA is the different structure at this campus, Dorman said, not a desire to hold UAA back.

“Administrative organizations and setups at UAA are not finely attuned into the research business, and attitudes on the part of faculty as an entity are not necessarily conducive to enhancing the competitiveness,” he said.

Bad experiences

Still, Douglas Causey, vice provost for research and graduate studies at UAA, said he prefers to seek competitive funding over earmarks because being competitive makes faculty perform better, and it also helps to increase research capacity in the future: “It’s a profit center.” The uncertain nature of earmarked funds doesn’t hurt either, though.

“The problem with earmarks is what you see right now,” he said regarding the national outcry over them. “We have very few, and I am pleased that we have so few.”

Fewer earmarks can mean fewer headaches. When things go wrong, legislators demand answers, and the wrong ones could stymie future efforts.

Take the nanotechnology program at UAF, for example. It began in 2002 as a collaborative effort between the university and several industry partners with seed money provided by a federal initiative. The goal was to develop a multisensor system to be used for perimeter defense by the Army. Tens of millions of dollars later, it failed to pick up an Army sponsor.

“It was not a great experience for the university,” said Pramod Karulkar, director of the Office of Electronic Miniaturization at UAF. “Now we are doing what originally the initiative should have done in the first two years. You cannot fix that, because of the time that was lost. The university cannot make it up.”

The university’s role in the project was to license the technology for use in a university setting by the Department of Defense, Dorman said. The reasons the Army did not pick up the program included it not meeting its technical milestones, meaning it took longer and cost more than expected, until finally the Army got fed up with it.

“What we had to do was go back and explain to Congress what our role was, what had happened overall, and request continuing support,” Dorman said. “Up until a year or so ago, they did.”

During fiscal years 2005 and 2006, the office received a total of $45.1 million, though that amount was shared with other partners. Results of the federal initiative effort in fiscal year 2007 listed the program as “still pending,” and it was unclear whether funding had been discontinued or not.

Karulkar said one problem with the initial program, of which he was not a part, was that it did not gradually build up its capability.

“We tried to jump into it with too large an initial investment,” he said. “We’re not abandoning that original mission; we have brought some realism into it, and we have added breadth and depth.”

Historic distribution

It’s not just in nanotechnology that UAF is a big spender. By all accounts, UAF is a research behemoth. It brought in $110.1 million in new research grants in fiscal year 2005, with $608.9 million in active grants, according to the year’s “UA in Review.” UAA brought in $10.8 million during the same year, with $123.9 million in active grants. Of the $106.8 million in all federal research money – competitive and noncompetitive – the university spent in fiscal year 2005, $97.4 million came from UAF, while UAA spent $9.2 million.

Such research capability demands expansion. That’s why the board of regents requested $105 million in its fiscal year 2008 capital request for the proposed BioSciences Facility, a major new research and learning center at UAF.

Despite its size, many of the programs administered through UAF are actually conducted in other areas. For example, UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, while based in Fairbanks, maintains operations around the state, including in places like Kodiak and in Southeast Alaska.

Still, Karen Schmitt, interim vice provost for research at UAS, said she thinks the funding distribution is equitable because that campus is small and focuses mostly on teaching.

“We get federal funding through the competitive research processes, not as much through earmarks,” she said. “We’ve got a very small and focused faculty, so we don’t tend to be able to mount those large, federal-level programs.”

UAF administers such programs because that is how the university was originally set up, said Buck Sharpton, vice chancellor for research at UAF.

“It looks on the surface like it’s a sort of irrational distribution, but it really isn’t,” he said. “At one time, and it wasn’t long ago, there was only one University of Alaska, and it was UAF.”

So it is because it has historically been done this way that much of the federal initiative money that is designated for research is funneled through UAF’s research centers. This includes the $10.5 million approved for the Alaska Volcano Observatory in fiscal year 2007, though there are no historically active volcanoes within 200 miles of Fairbanks. There are four within that radius of Anchorage and three in Southeast Alaska.

It is also the reason why landlocked UAF got $17 million for the National Undersea Research Project during the past three years, and why it received $6 million for research on a tsunami warning project, though some of those funds are shared.

“It’s historical, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s historical,” Causey said.

Doctors needed

There are few who challenge UAF’s status as a research powerhouse. Most natural sciences should be researched in Fairbanks, Hirshberg said, but in areas such as biology and social issues, Anchorage should take the lead.

“There are a lot of people pushing at the edges, trying to move us forward, and I think that makes other people nervous,” Hirshberg said. “If we’re going to be a center of excellence, then we need to move our research agenda forward.”

That will begin by offering Ph.D. programs at UAA, she said. Although UAA itself does not offer any doctoral programs currently, it does have a few joint programs with UAF in which students can take courses in both campuses via distance learning to complete a degree issued by UAF.

That is the direction UAA needs to go, Hirshberg said, a sentiment that was echoed by Sharpton.

“I don’t make these decisions about Ph.D.s, but I do think it’s reasonable to expect Anchorage will have Ph.D. programs in certain areas in the near future,” Sharpton said.

Or not.

“If we’re talking about UAA becoming a Ph.D.-granting institution, it won’t happen while I’m in charge,” UA President Mark Hamilton said at a Commonwealth North forum on March 5, 2004. “I can’t have two inefficient Ph.D.-granting institutions in a state of 600,000 people.”

UAA Provost Mike Driscoll said he thinks UAA is ready for Ph.D. programs in some fields, but he also said he thought it wouldn’t make sense for UAA to offer the same programs as does UAF. The joint programs offer students the advantage of drawing on the expertise of professors from the two campuses, he said, but he acknowledged that the lack of a UAA doctoral program could hurt the campus’s research efforts.

“Not being able to draw from a large doctoral student population does change the research dynamic a little bit,” Driscoll said. “It does slow the pace a little bit to not have a doctoral program. There’s no question of that.”

Still, research is moving forward at UAA. Dean Thomas Case of the College of Business and Public Policy received a $17 million federal initiative in fiscal year 2007 for applied research at the Alaska Center for Supply Chain Integration.

His program focuses on applied research dealing with radio frequency microsensor systems, essentially radio-controlled bar codes used to track shipments via satellite, and he said collaboration with UAF made his program possible.

“We were working with a UAF team informally, which helped us gain the insight from the work they were doing,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were competing with the UAF outfit. They were working more on the pure research area, and our example was more applied research.”

That’s not to say there is no interest in conducting pure research.

Though Causey said he recognizes that UAA has a mission heavily focused on teaching, he thinks there is still room to expand in research. One problem he faces is a shortage in faculty.

“If the faculty had more time to do research, the faculty would do more research,” he said. “By adding research, we will grow our teaching mission as well.”

Hirshberg said a doctoral program at UAA would help keep students – Alaska’s future workforce – in the state and that she thinks there is enough room in the state for several high-quality research and teaching institutes.

“Anchorage is too big and too important to the state economy and to the state political and social structure for us not to be doing a lot of really good research,” she said.