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Pediatrics instructor Alistair McGregor filling vials in a lab.

Pediatrics instructor Alistair McGregor in a lab. Health is a major focus of U research.

A wake-up call for the U

The vice president for research reports on what the U needs to do to realize a top rank

By Deane Morrison

Brief, December 21, 2005

Even though the University attracts more research support every year, it's not doing as well as many of its peers as measured by one key yardstick, and the gap is widening. That was the message delivered to the Board of Regents December 9 by R. Timothy Mulcahy, the University's vice president for research, in the annual report on the status of U research. It was Mulcahy's first annual report since he joined the University last February. The report came as a wake-up call because the University has usually reported on research gains in absolute terms, not in comparison with other institutions. And it underscores the challenges the U faces as it continues on its journey to become a top-three public research university. Although total research awards at the U increased 7.6 percent, to $563.4 million, in fiscal year 2005, there was a worrisome drop in federally funded science and engineering research expenditures at the University that were reported to the National Science Foundation (NSF). The drop, from $295.4 million to $293.3 million between 2002 and 2003 (the last years data are available), was small, but the University was one of only three of 100 institutions that showed a decline rather than an increase. As troubling as these numbers are, Mulcahy said the aggressive measures the U is taking to become a top three public research university are steps in the right direction. "These data are chilling, but I find it encouraging that the University has recognized its situation and is taking serious measures to improve its standing," said Mulcahy. "The strategic positioning initiatives have come none too soon." Also of concern was an NSF ranking of schools by amount of research funding. The University ranked 6th in 1995, 9th in 2000 and 8th in 2003. UCLA shot from 9th to 1st in the same eight-year period, while several other universities moved up two or three notches. Further, during the period 1998-2003, Congress doubled the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget but the University increased its NIH funding by only 75 percent. NIH is the biggest funder of University research, accounting for 43.7 percent of the U's research expenditures. "Although the NSF rankings are not the only measures of a university's quality and impact, the rankings cannot be ignored," said Mulcahy. Many more statistics in the report painted a picture of the University gaining overall funding, largely from private sources, but losing some ground on federal grants. For example, the U ranked fifth in the nation in 2003 in the amount of money generated from university technology, according to a survey by the Association of University Technology Managers. And an independent technology transfer consulting group judged the U to have the fourth strongest "technology pipeline."

"These data are chilling, but I find it encouraging that the University has recognized its situation....The strategic positioning initiatives have come none too soon."

But plenty of hurdles remain. Thanks to hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the war in Iraq, federal funds for scientific research are not likely to increase appreciably in the next few years. So competition for those funds is becoming even more intense. Already, just to secure the current level of research funding, U faculty submitted nearly 1,000 more grant proposals to funding agencies in 2005 than in 1996. Fortunately for the U, the trend of agencies such as NIH and NSF are increasingly favoring research proposals that draw on interdisciplinary strengths. The University has long prided itself on standing out in that department; with colleges of agriculture, medicine, and technology on one campus, it is one of only a handful to offer such breadth of expertise in a small geographical area. The strategic positioning process now under way will accentuate those relationships and should put the U in a stronger position to compete for grants. Already the U is regarded by peer institutions as possessing the raw material to strengthen its position nationally, and better organization and use of our resources could make it happen. Mulcahy, who came too Minnesota from the University of Wisconsin, said the U is doing many of the right things with strategic positioning. "The U has the talent and the determination to rise to the top," he said. "Now it's time to focus our energy and make it happen." To view a PDF of Mulcahy's presentation, see the annual report and click on the link to "Status of University Research Presentation Slides" near the end.