Friday, August 31, 2012

Atta Person?

By Keith McDowell

Bonuses! Everybody wants one. Few get them. Mostly they go to those special employees who boost a company’s bottom line – otherwise know as making money. It’s a simple game. No money – no bonus! And in the commercial business world, making money is the prime and only reason for continued existence, notwithstanding those subsidized businesses that are paid to serve the greater good and general welfare of America – defense industries being an example.

So why would a non-profit entity such as a university pay bonuses for meeting a smorgasbord of metrics tied to their complex multi-dimensional mission space? And why only the president – the least likely person to have any real affect on the metrics? Oh, but the presidents might leave to take a highly-paid CEO position in the business world goes the argument of The University of Texas System who recently created just such a bonus policy. Nonsense! Bonuses really only work in a world where making money is the game, not in a world where educating our children, searching for new knowledge through discovery, and engaging our local communities are the principal mission components.

Ignoring for the moment the old saw about “you become what you measure,” let’s take a hard look at one specific measure or metric to be used to disburse bonuses: increased funding for sponsored research.

What strategies might one employ to meet the metric? As every successful vice president for research at a university knows, such strategies breakdown nicely into two categories: macro-level and micro-level. A typical list of macro-level strategies with comments is as follows:

·      Build a modern research facility at a cost of $600 to $1,000 per square foot. Of course, if one is lucky, you might get 60% or so of the space as usable space, the rest going to utilities, hallways, and the like. But as pointed out in an editorial in Science, American universities have already overbuilt their research capacity with respect to any reasonable expectation of growth in the federal grant dollars.
·      Purchase cutting edge and very expensive equipment to attract grants by having a “unique” capability – nanotechnology clean-room facilities being a prime example.
·      Raid other university faculties for “stars.” This strategy is great for tenured or tenure-track faculty members since it increases mobility, but it also drives up the cost of doing business. And in a world of cost cutting – otherwise known as cost containment to the politically correct, there is an unintended consequence: the hiring of part-time faculty to drive down instructional costs.
·      Increase the graduate student population, especially high-quality students, via a number of strategies including enhanced stipends and fringe benefits, signing bonuses, scholarships and fellowships, and many other time-tested means. Research requires warm bodies in the laboratories independent of whether a STEM job awaits the graduates. Interestingly, this strategy has produced an oversupply of STEM workers – according to labor statistics and contrary to conventional wisdom – and led to a saturation of highly qualified, research-trained faculty at every level in our educational system.
·      Pursue an aggressive hiring policy at the front-end to attract the best tenure-track faculty from the available pool. Typically, this means a start-up package of at least $500,000 or more in many disciplines.
·      Form partnerships with other universities, national laboratories, and industry.
·      Engage in cluster hiring to obtain a critical mass of people and shared equipment.

To its credit, The University of Texas System through its Board of Regents in 2006 addressed the issue of research competitiveness in America as revealed by the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm and invested over $3 billion in such macro-level strategies. A comprehensive review of the initial success of that approach was presented to the Regents in 2009 and captured in a report entitled The Competitiveness Initiative of The University of Texas System. And it didn’t require a bonus for the presidents to achieve such results!

But let’s turn now to where most of the action occurs – at the micro-level. Here is a list of the typical strategies used to increase research funding.

·      Provide travel funding for faculty to visit federal funding agencies and program managers.
·      Provide internal seed grants, typically on the order of $5,000.
·      Provide faculty development through training and mentoring in grantsmanship.
·      Provide internal pre-review of proposals, the downside being the time and effort from senior faculty whose schedule is already fully subscribed.
·      Engage in repeat and multiple proposal submission to multiple agencies, although the federal agencies (especially NIH) are working to reduce such practices.
·      Pursue and develop technology commercialization through patents, technology transfer, entrepreneurial faculty and startups, and partnering with industry with a focus on increasing intellectual property revenues, industry sponsored research, and gifts and donations from successful entrepreneurs and industry.
·      Build a robust research administration infrastructure.
·      Create a research development infrastructure both to search out old and new funding sources and to “hot spot” emerging research frontiers. A research ecosystem capable of adaptation is the key.

I’ve only skimmed the surface and vastly oversimplified a complex undertaking, but suffice it to say that there truly is “nothing new under the sun” when it comes to the list of strategies, programs, and action items needed to increase research funding. Any group of research vice presidents could quickly flesh out my list. The reality is that everyone is already playing the game to the max with the amount of dollars invested being the principal discriminator as to success.

And as to success these days at increasing the amount of sponsored research funding, people should not hold their collective breath. The size of the pie isn’t growing much anymore and the game has become one of increasing market share.

So, are bonuses for university presidents a good strategy to increase sponsored research funding?  I think not! Frankly, the rather small amount of money involved would be much more effectively used and better spent at the micro-level where the real action occurs. I continue to believe that the focus and vision of a university should be on using such articulated strategies as I’ve mentioned to build “a culture of excellence in scholarly activity.”  That is what makes and keeps institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Oxford at the top of their game – not bonuses.

So, do I get a bonus for stating the obvious?

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