Doug Cohen: A sustainable future for research at GW

Editor’s note: This is the first column in a two-part series on the future of research at GW. Next week, the writer will discuss the balance between teaching and research.

With the ground breaking on the new Science and Engineering Hall set to begin next week, the University has launched a new phase in science and engineering research.

This drive toward science and engineering research will affect every student and faculty member at the University in the future.

These plans have been in the works for years, but they intensified when the Board of Trustees made research its priority with the hiring of University President Steven Knapp in 2007.

To account for the difficulties facing research universities, I propose that the University look toward a research model that was proven successful at Vanderbilt University.

By following this model, hopefully the University will become a research institution in a responsible manner that does not damage the future of the institution.

A shrinking pool of federal money

Federal grant money is the most important source of research funding for higher education. Yet in 2009, these funds accounted for only 59 percent of science and engineering obligations to universities, a six-percent drop from 2005.

And the situation could become more dire, as government agency budgets may be cut while the government looks to continue to reduce its deficit.

As a result, universities are pouring in more of their own resources to attract external funding. Of the 100 universities that received the most federal science and engineering research money in 1999, 27 of them at least doubled their institutional spending on such research over the past decade, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yet nearly half of these schools still tumbled in the federal funding rankings.

Universities have been forced to devote significantly more funding to research, but these big investments don’t always achieve their full potential, creating a resource drain at schools.

One alternative to depleting a school’s own resources could be forging industry partnerships.

GW received only $3 million from corporate partnerships in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation, hardly enough to keep our research endeavors thriving.

The University is also seeking to recruit premier research faculty to bring in grants. Yet universities nationwide lose between 2.1 and 3.8 billion annually on un-reimbursed grant costs, according to the American Association of Universities. So even with top faculty, there is a good chance the University can still lose money.

GW’s research dilemma

The University is ratcheting up its science and engineering research programs at a time when the race for money and prestige has intensified like never before.

There is a danger in investing in science and engineering programs right now, and it could potentially be harmful for the future of the University.

Gone are the days of seemingly endless money for research universities – the pool is shrinking, and only the most innovative and adaptive will be able to survive.

This gives rise to a number of questions: What are the costs of attempting to run with the best?

How does the University avoid a potential resource drain at this institution?

Will other programs become shortchanged because of GW’s drive toward research?

There is no one solution. But there is one model that I believe the University should look toward for guidance.

A model for success

Almost 10 years ago, Vanderbilt University put a $100 million discretionary endowment fund toward an Academic Venture Capital Fund.

Using the money in the Academic Venture Capital Fund, Vanderbilt opened a large-scale internal grant competition amongst faculty to vie for funding. Eventually, 11 main research initiatives were chosen and Vanderbilt earmarked resources toward these projects for significant investment.

GW should implement these key ideas.

This spring, the University will unveil a strategic plan that will identify eight to 10 key research areas that the University will focus on in the future.

Whichever key research initiatives the University decides to focus on, there must be a significant and defined amount of resources and funding for these areas. Then, a widespread, competitive process amongst faculty should be implemented to determine which specific research projects will be undertaken for each area.

This will provide the University with a solid foundation in a few particular research areas, which will create a stable base for the future.

Allowing professors to compete with one another will help to en sure that the research projects identified will be successful and worthwhile.

Investing strategically and internally throughout the University will give us direction for our funding, which will allow the University to plan the use of our precious resources more effectively and efficiently.

Without strong central guidance from the University and a strategic allotment of our funds, there is a risk of using our resources in an erratic and unproductive manner.

This move is critical for protecting funding and resources for the vast array of programs across the University, including the humanities.

Without a plan to tactically invest in some specific areas, our worst fears of budget cutting for other departments and programs might be realized.

Will implementing what I am suggesting be taking a leap of faith? It very well may be.

But given the uncertainty surrounding research universities, we must take the necessary measures to prepare ourselves for the University’s long-term future.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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