Concerns Over R&D Funding Push Universities Toward New Accountability Measures

The current crunch in research funding is not simply a rough patch but rather a fundamental shift that will require universities to change their organization, priorities, and accountability practices, education experts told a AAAS audience.

“We have to come to grips with the fact that we probably have as many research universities in this country as we need,” Raymund A. Paredes, the Texas commissioner of higher education, said at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Raymund A. Paredes
Raymund A. Paredes

“We’ve over-produced Ph.D.s in a number of areas because institutions have wanted to get into that category of institutional excellence,” said Paredes. “We have to create other notions of institutional excellence.” He suggested that most universities should return to a primary focus on undergraduate education rather than research.

The 37th annual Forum, which took place 26-27 April in Washington, D.C., brought together more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, educators, and journalists for an in-depth survey of current issues.

In a Forum panel on coping with bleak R&D budgets, Paredes outlined the demographic context for higher education in Texas. The cost of attending a state university is right at the national average for a public university, he said, “but per capita and family income in Texas are well below the national average.” About 60% of the K-12 population in the state qualifies for Title 1 benefits for free or reduced lunches, and that is the main population served by the universities. Total state appropriations for higher education declined by about 2.3% overall, even while total enrollment was increasing by 7.6%.

Paredes said the universities feel they cannot cover the losses in state revenue by further increases in tuition and fees. “We have reached the tipping point in terms of accessibility of higher education,” he said. While the two flagship schools—the University of Texas and Texas A&M—likely would survive, further cost increases would be devastating to the regional universities that predominately serve lower income populations.

Texas: 500 Programs Closed

Accountability is driven by two factors. “As the cost of higher education has gone up, stakeholders, particularly legislators, are asking, ‘What are we getting for our money?’” Paredes said. “Higher education is going to have to demonstrate that it is using its resources more effectively.”

“The second point is that K-12 has been held to very high levels of accountability for many years” through programs such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Paredes added.

Policy makers are demanding the same of higher education. The six-year graduation rates from college are about 55%, nearly the same as for high school, he said. “We are going to be held accountable in three areas: graduation outcomes, workforce alignment, and how cost-efficient higher education is.

“You could reduce the operating expenses in most institutions of higher education by somewhere between 15% and 30% without loss to instructional quality or overall institutional quality,” Paredes said, citing a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “Those are facts we are going to have to respond to.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees all such activity in the state, has taken bold steps to adapt to this environment. Their Outcomes-Based Funding proposal will allocate 10% of resources based upon graduation rates and other criteria beginning in fiscal year 2014.

The Board recently “closed over 500 academic programs, including undergraduate and graduate programs in basic science fields—physics, chemistry, biology—they simply weren’t productive,” Paredes said. “They were enrolling two to three students a year and three years later they weren’t graduating. Our standards for maintaining programs are relatively low, five graduates a year over a five-year period.”

“We just made a policy decision at the Coordinating Board that we are not going to accept any proposals for graduate programs from universities that have six-year graduation rates below 50%,” he said. “That has upset a lot of people. But it seems to me we have to get our priorities straight.”

Paredes urged universities and faculty to “pay more attention to the pipeline” of younger students. While science and engineering programs have proliferated, “we don’t have enough students coming out of K-12 that can do rigorous STEM work.” Part of the solution, he said, is to work with local schools to ensure that universities have the type and number of students prepared to sustain their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs.

Collaboration, a Practical Necessity

Kelvin K. Droegemeier
Kelvin K. Droegemeier

If universities fail to create their own metrics of accountability, then “it is going to be thrust upon them. We can’t just wait this out and come out the other end and it is like it was before,” said Kelvin K. Droegemeier, the University of Oklahoma vice president for research. “It is not going to be like it was before, and frankly that’s a good thing.”

Droegemeier believes expanded collaboration is one key for institutional success in competing for a finite pool of grant money. He pointed to programs launched by National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh “like the I-CORPS program and OneNSF. He is thinking, if we are going to do more with less, we have got to pull together and do collaborative-type work.”

Droegemeier called collaboration with foundations “a partnership that Congress really loves because it is translating research outcomes into innovative products and services for society.”

Another key is to engage the social, behavioral, and economic sciences in questions that often have been approached primarily or exclusively from the perspective of physical sciences. Droegemeier used the example of severe weather, which killed a record number of people in Oklahoma last year, despite an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the meteorology. He said a behavioral approach can bring new insight to the issues.

“The way we can get through this budget crisis is by pooling our resources and working together. You can’t have every institution be equally strong in everything. Strategically focusing at the institutional level, at the national level, is something we are going to have to do.”

But Droegemeier also acknowledged that his university has shut down a few programs where a faculty member left or the research groups were declining. “You look for those opportunities.”

“Such a Scary Scenario”

Carrie Wolinetz
Carrie Wolinetz

Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations with the Association of American Universities, said the budget crunch has been particularly difficult for National Institutes of Health-funded activities, as it came soon on the heels of a five-year period in which the NIH budget doubled.

Even while going through the doubling, “nobody really predicted how bad the post-doubling era would be. When we talked about what would be a soft landing, a sustainable pathway, the absolute worst case scenario that anyone could come up with was 4% growth,” she said. “We have essentially seen a flat or reduced budget, even more so when you factor in inflation.”

One way to measure the impact, Wolinetz said, is to look at the success rates of grant applications, which are now hitting “historic lows” for NIH and its subsidiary institutes. That decline held steady, and in some instances even bumped up a bit with the infusion of stimulus funding, but it reverted back to the same steep rate of decline when those funds ran out.

“Some of the problems are unavoidable just by the nature of science itself. Science is exponential: The more questions you ask, the more questions you discover,” Wolinetz said. The foundation of genetics and genomics, for example, has reached a point where it can generate research questions that will take decades to fund.

Another factor is the growth and transformation of “the ambiguous post-doc period, which has become more than just a training period. This is where we see some of the workforce issues come into play with the after-effects of the doubling,” she said. The growth becomes a problem “if you do not have sustainable career pathways for these post-docs,” and has contributed to the increased competition for NIH grants.

Wolinetz said the good news is that scientific opportunities are enormous and “there is still a lot of bipartisan support” among elected officials for the NIH. Unfortunately, she noted, “there isn’t a lot of money to go around.”

“If the pie is remaining stagnant or shrinking, at some point you are going to have to make tough choices. And tough choices means that there are going to be losers. There is just no getting around that—someone is not going to get funded.

“Far from the best case scenario is this looming Sword of Damocles that we call sequestration,” Wolinetz said. Under the sequestration agreement reached by Congress in 2011, across the board cuts in discretionary spending are slated to take effect on 1 January 2013 unless there is bipartisan agreement to make large, targeted cuts in spending.

“Sequestration would cut the NIH budget—current estimates are on order of 8-10%. That’s a really big cut,” she said. “How NIH and the entire community would deal with that is such a scary scenario that we would all like to try and not think about.”

“But it would bring a lot of these issues to a head if it happens,” Wolinetz said. It is going to be very difficult to plan for “because until the 11th hour, I suspect we are not going to know if sequestration is going to go forward.”


See the full program for the 2012 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

See more coverage of this year’s Forum.