Someday, a science reporter is going to hybridize with an economics reporter and then the topic of how science is funded will actually be covered accurately. Until then, you’re stuck with the Mad Biologist. By way of The Intersection, we come across this Chronicle of Higher Education commentary by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. I think the overall point, which is that colleges and universities have strayed from their core mission, which is education, is a good one. But like much commentary on this subject, it neglects the harsh, cold reality of revenue (Got Pepsi?). Here’s their suggestion regarding high-powered research:
Spin off medical schools, research centers, and institutes. Postgraduate training has a place, as long as it doesn’t divert faculties from working with undergraduates or preoccupy presidents, who should be focusing on education–not angling for another center on antiterrorist technologies. For people who want to do research, plenty of other places exist–the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute–all of which do excellent work without university ties. Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school–which often becomes the most costly complex on a campus, commandeering resources, attention, and even mission. In fact, the “school” often becomes a minute part of a medical complex: Johns Hopkins has fewer than 500 medical students, but atop them sits an empire with more than 30,000 employees.
Full disclosure: I work at an institute that basically spun itself off. Notice that I didn’t say was spun off by the universities, but, instead, moved away.
And the universities weren’t entirely happy about it. Why?
I’ve discussed overhead and fringe costs on grants before, so the short version is that on a federal grant, usually somewhere between 30-40% of the total grant award doesn’t go to the researcher for research costs (salaries, supplies, etc.), but to the institution. Now, some of that money is spent on actual administrative costs, but the rest goes to the university*. So if the university spins off $50 million, or $100, or, in the case of the University of Iowa, $169,175,021 of NIH funding alone (never mind other government sources), that’s tens of millions of dollars that have to be recovered.
One option is a Magic Pony that craps platinum bars:
If you crapped bars of platinum, you would look like this too. You would not be happy.
Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, you either have to raise tuition (or state taxes for public universities), or hope someone ponies up a huge honking endowment. I realize “huge honking” is a highly technical term, so to put some concrete numbers to this, if a university loses $15 million of indirect costs, it needs to raise $300 million of endowment ($15 million is a five percent annual payout).
Since I’ve called for more of a research institute model, I’m not opposed to spinning off research institutes. But I have no idea how universities that receive a lot of research dollars will make up the revenue shortfall. To gain any traction, that brutal reality needs to be addressed.
*A few years back, Stanford got in trouble for using some of this money to buy a yacht to wine and dine potential donors. There are limits, but they are honored mostly in the breach.
Update: ScienceBlogling DrugMonkey has some thoughts about this related to institutional reputation.