Less Gas For The Bunsen Burners

The 1980s were heady years for research universities. They became the answer to everyone's R&D headaches. The federal government saw them as engines for U. S. competitiveness and cranked up research-and-development support some 119%, to $8.9 billion in 1989. State and local governments, hungry for a stream of inventions that would carve out new Silicon Valleys, showered schools with funding. Companies seeking to stretch R&D dollars put research projects on campus, where scientists were outfitted with advanced laboratories and lionized for their discoveries. Given the lures of money and opportunity, the ranks of university researchers nearly doubled--a rate far too high to sustain even with generous support. "We expanded our enterprise in a very casual way," says Bernard D. Davis, Harvard Medical School professor emeritus of microbiology.

Now, those days are coming to an end. Most of the nation's top 100 research universities--the foundation of basic science in the U. S.--are embroiled in a "midlife crisis," says Eric Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). "They face a leveling off of growth and cannot come to grips with their unfulfilled aspirations." After rising rapidly during the 1980s, federal funding, some 60% of university research support, is leveling off in real dollars (chart). State funding is, too. In short, schools have built research infrastructures designed to soak up money only to find prospects for support diminishing. "Our appetite for research ventures has outpaced our ability to provide resources to fund them," says Alvin L. Kwiram, vice-provost for research at the University of Washington.

BAD SCIENCE. The strain of that expansion shows up everywhere. Critics contend that in their pursuit of research grants, schools are neglecting teaching and even churning out science of questionable quality. Earlier this year, research carried out at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute and reviewed by David Baltimore, now president of Rockefeller University, was found to involve fabricated data. This spring, a series of scandals over how R&D money is spent has subjected top schools to unprecedented scrutiny. The events have knocked universities off their pedestals. These days, they "are at best regarded with indifference, and at worst looked upon with disdain and contempt," says Cornelius J. Pings, provost at the University of Southern California. After revelations that Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, among others, overbilled the federal government for overhead costs, Washington may put limits on such spending.

In the 1990s, research universities will need to turn over a new leaf. They'll have to set stricter priorities, which will mean pruning the amount of science they support, trimming administrative overhead, and putting less emphasis on perks and more on teaching. Finally, they'll need to be better competitors. The most innovative and aggressive among them will grow in stature at the expense ef those that can't adjust.

They need to compensate, somehow, for the go-go 1980s, when research universities expanded faster than they should have. They added more scientists than they could really afford, so they were unable to maintain existing facilities. The salaries of researchers soared: They now consume 55% of federal research contracts, up from 31% in 1978. And more complicated environmental, animal-care, and health-and-safety regulations added costs and bureaucracy. All told, the cost of supporting a researcher doubled, to $140,000.

At the same time, federal funding for facilities declined, increasing pressures on universities to compensate elsewhere. For some, one solution was to charge more of their overhead to the government. To cover operating costs, universities are allowed to charge an overhead fee for each research contract. A set share of each contract amount, it covers administrative costs, building depreciation, and expenses such as heating and lights. It averaged about 54% in 1990. But without the cushion of state funding, private schools were particularly aggressive in negotiating with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Health & Human Services Dept., which set the rate. Stanford University's rate rose from 58% in 1980 to 74% in 1990.

This year, it finally overreached. Its proposal for a 78% rate in 1991 raised the ire of the Stanford faculty and led to an ONR discovery that taxpayers were supporting Stanford's 72-foot yacht and many other dubious expenditures. In April, the ONR slashed overhead payments to Stanford by $18 million and capped its rate at 55.5%. That will produce an overall loss for the school of $20 million in the 1991 academic year. By mid-May, nine schools, including CalTech, Harvard Med, and MIT, had reviewed their charges and returned $3.4 million. More serious repercussions may be coming: Federal reviewers are auditing several dozen schools all told, including the University of Washington, MIT, and Duke University. Congress may rewrite the overhead rules--and perhaps set fixed rates for everyone.

TOUGHER TIMES. That could make the 1990s tougher for a number of schools. Industry had become a major source of new funds for university research by 1989, contributing 6.6% of the total, vs. 3.9% in 1980. But it can't make up for slower federal growth. Corporate support is "not a free lunch for anyone," says Michael Shahin, who oversees disbursements by Xerox Corp. Companies such as Xerox and Ford Motor Co. now insist that research they sponsor directly must benefit a corporate development program.

Faced with these new realities, critics say, most schools must reorder their priorities. For starters, that means rededicating themselves to teaching. "Universities jumped on the research and international-competitiveness bandwagon too much for their own good," says IBM Vice-President for Science & Technology John A. Armstrong. As science and engineering faculty piled on the research, they spent less time in the classroom. At many schools, in fact, faculty must bring in part of their salaries in research grants. The share of new PhDs whose main duty is teaching has plummeted to 30% from 57% since 1976, according to an NSF survey. "Every university is so delinquent on teaching it's pathetic," says Rustum Roy, a Pennsylvania State University materials science professor.

A few schools are starting to address the imbalance. This year, new faculty at the University of Pennsylvania are required to teach undergraduates, regardless of their research activities. Harvard University is deferring the automatic, $1 million-plus laboratory renovations for new sci-tech professors. Stanford is trying to turn back the clock by rewarding good teachers.

Equally important, as schools try to save money, they are using a kind of academic triage to lop off less-than-stellar research and programs. Some public colleges, heavily dependent on state funds, will be particularly hard hit. "The decade of the 1990s will be one where advancements are achieved through replacement, not addition," argues University of Maryland President William E. Kirwan. Faced with a $25 million cutback in state funds, he has proposed dropping the nuclear engineering department, seven other programs, and two colleges. Stanford is slowing the construction of a new state-of-the-art science complex.

Many schools, however, are upping the ante--and fighting for more research funding. Within weeks of one another, MIT and a consortium of California state universities hired full-time lobbyists to corral new federal grants. Last year, when Texas A&M University feared that funding for agricultural research would fall, it hurriedly repositioned its Institute of Biosciences & Technology to chase funding for the Human Genome project, which intends to map the genes on all 26 human chromosomes.

To keep the grants coming, schools will need to be more competitive. In the past decade, a new tier of players has emerged from the research backwaters. Last August, for instance, MIT lost a $60 million federal magnet research lab, which will do R&D on high-field magnets for everything from medical imaging to nuclear fusion, to Florida State University. "The major research universities are smarting," says George H. Heilmeier, chief executive of Bell Communications Research Inc.

NEW RIVALRIES. Indeed, the upstart schools are becoming masters at winning industry funding. Neither North Carolina State University nor Texas A&M ranked in the top 10 in industry funding a decade ago. Now they are fourth and sixth, respectively. Today, North Carolina State pulls in $22 million a year from industry for microelectronics, signal processing, and electricity transmission research. It gets more corporate money than Carnegie Mellon University or Cornell University. Recently, Swiss-Swedish engineering giant ABB Asea Brown Boveri chose it for a $7 million lab to study power transmission. These schools are eager for such work, which often is applied research. And companies get more for their money because the schools have low overhead costs, says John W. McCredie, who manages Digital Equipment Corp.'s external research program.

That's not the only trend hurting top science factories that traditionally have won most research contracts. Megaprojects such as the $8 billion superconducting supercollider and the $8 billion Human Genome project promise to add more full-time technicians and researchers to the ranks of scientists and to soak up scarce federal funds. With more than 155,000 researchers now competing for a federal pot that's expected to rise by single-digit percentages annually in the 1990s--vs. 10% a year in the late `80s--research sponsors are urging schools to hold down their number of scientists. "We have to think about how many people we want in the system." says Ralph E. Gomory, a former IBM executive who is president of the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Indeed, by some indications, the buildup in spending during the 1980s didn't improve science all that much. The Institute for Scientific Information, a Philadelphia science publisher, says its gauge of U. S. academic papers published in the 1980s shows a sharp decline in impact from a decade ago. ISI tracks how many times papers are referenced in the works of others. And it found that papers published between 1981 and 1988 were cited by others just 9.5 times, compared with 14 times for papers published from 1973 to 1988. "I think we have overpublishing and some sloppy science," concludes Albert A. Barber, Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. In part, he blames this situation on the academic world's publish-or-perish promotion system and the scramble for research funds.

Universities don't buy the notion that research undermines education. Herbert R. Fusfeld, director of the science and technology policy center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state, notes that tuitions have not kept up with the costs of higher education. Research funding "carries the edu-cation base," hesays. MIT President Charles M. Vest argues that research itself tends to improve undergraduate schooling. "The most relevant and robust undergraduate education takes place in a research university," he says.

American universities remain the envy of the world. "They are still the bestplace to do research," says Walter E. Massey, the NSF's new director. It is critical that they keep that title. But it's also essential that schools don't lose sight of their mission to train the nation's scientists. Ultimately, top graduates are the key to transferring university knowledge to industry. And that may be the schools' most important role in keeping the U. S. competitive.

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