With stagnant national funding, U looks to private sources

Research awards from business and industry have grown more than 23 percent since 2006.

Youssef Rddad

As federal funding for higher education research stagnates nationwide, University of Minnesota officials are turning to private funding sources.
 
 
To help offset the recent loss, the University is turning to business, industry and other private investment, said Vice President for Research
Brian Herman.  
 
 
Although federal financial support for University research has grown 17.6 percent — with inflation — over the past decade, funding overall decreased .4 percent, said Dan Gilchrist, a spokesman for the Office of the Vice President for Research. 
 
 
“When you have a decrease of that magnitude, you either need to become more competitive for the remaining dollars or look for other resources to support other research activity,” Herman said. 
 
 
Over the past ten years, major funding sources like the National Institutes of Health and other federal funding sources have had less money to support research, he said.
 
 
In December, the U.S. Congress passed a bill boosting funds by several billion dollars for research institutions that fund 
university research. 
 
 
“We have a lot of opportunity this year to recapture lost federal funding,” Herman said, adding that he hopes faculty write more grants to scientific agencies, like the NIH.
 
 
Looking toward partnerships
 
 
Since 2006, research awards from business and industry grew by 23.4 percent, accounting for inflation, according to an 
annual OVPR report. Other private awards grew by 38.9 percent in the same period.
 
 
Igor Kolomitsyn, a researcher at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth said while partnerships with businesses gives him a lot of independence in his research, his job often requires him to pitch his research to companies.
 
 
“We have to earn our salaries by making contracts, Kolomitsyn said. “We’re basically not being paid like professors.”
 
 
Kolomitsyn, an organic chemist, said he helped develop technology to eliminate heavy metals from mining water using peat, a brown, soil-like material.
 
 
In 2009, Kolomitsyn partnered with American Peat Technology, a company based in Aitkin, Minn., that manufactures environmental products. 
 
 
In exchange for Kolomitsyn’s research, the company also has access to certain University resources such as academic journals.
 
 
Herman said he hopes collaborations like these continue to help shoulder federal funding losses. 
 
 
Regents look ahead to changing funding environment 
 
 
Members of the Board of Regents were briefed on the research funding trends in December, which included discussions of increased private funding.
 
 
“It’s hard to quantify what the potential is, but it feels like we’re still in the beginning stages of what that could be,” Regent Richard Beeson said at the meeting. He said he’d like to know how the University manages relationships with larger corporations. 
 
 
It’s important that the corporations understand they’re supporting research for the sake of research and the goals are not unrealistic or inappropriate, Herman said.  
 
 
“It’s obvious why we do that, because federal funding is, by and large, flat,” Regent Patricia Simmons said at the meeting.
 
 
At the meeting she said privately financed research can be challenging because of specific expectations by funders.
 
 
While Simmons said some states have funded large research projects — like a $3 billion stem cell research in California — those projects have yet to see many results. 
 
 
“Sometimes it doesn’t work as well at the state level as it has at the federal level,” she said at the meeting.