The price to pay…to be top three

David Zarkower is worried.

He’s a professor of genetic and cell biology and development. He’s a researcher. He’s an educator. And he’s worried.

Zarkower is one of many University researchers whose reapplication for research grants was originally denied by the National Institutes of Health in recent years.

“Once you shut down a research project, it’s much harder to get it started again,” he said.

Like many researchers, he had to rely on University bridge funding – miniature grants to help researchers maintain their facilities – until he got a chance to reapply.

It’s a new phenomenon, he said; in 19 years of research, he’s rarely seen researchers so financially restrained. “We have technologies now that we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago, and this is the time we should be going full steam ahead,” he said. “Instead, we’re being very hampered.”

Zarkower isn’t alone, even at the University.

NIH grants for individual University researchers have declined by almost $220 million since 2002. These grants provide a large percentage of funding.

The University, thick in its quest to become one of the top three public research universities in the world, has to pick up the slack.

University bridge grants have totaled more than $27 million over the past four years, which gives researchers less money than they’d get from the NIH.

Zarkower said he got $50,000 to maintain his project in the meantime, as compared to the roughly $300,000 he normally receives from the NIH.

“It’s putting a burden on the University because these are large income streams that are being disrupted,” Zarkower said. “And the University is struggling to come up with bridge funding.”


The goal to become one of the top three public research universities in the world has trickled down through the administration and University operations.

“I think this is one of the most important qualities of the University of Minnesota system,” University President Bob Bruininks said.

How does the University measure Top-Three progress?

• An annual National Science Foundation survey of university research funding measures the “U” against other institutions.
• Research and development expenditures matter most. In the most current data (2006) the “U” ranked ninth among public American universities, improving one place from 2005 but dropping from eighth in 2004.

Mulcahy said these fluctuations reflect two separate forces – increased competition and decreased competitiveness. It’s still important for the “U” to look at the whole picture, he said, to compete with elite universities.

The initiative is meant to be a 10-year plan, but Bruininks said it looks beyond that.

“We’re trying to lay the foundation for a long-term University strategy that I think will stretch beyond the 10-year period and my tenure as president,” Bruininks said.

But gray areas remain when the focus turns to funding the project.

“This is a very vibrant place of research and discovery that, in a very material sense, is changing our world,” Bruininks said. “The statistics on how much we derive to support research, in my judgment, is only a small part of the story.”

University Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy said, however, that the University judges its progress based on its research expenditures.

A 2007 report on University research funding found total research expenditures hit $548 million in 2007 – a 5.7 percent increase from 2006.

Research money awarded to the University hit $619 million, up 7.5 percent from the year before.

Mulcahy said these numbers show the University’s increasing prowess for research funding.

“We don’t want to get cocky about it,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention to the signs and you have to work hard to keep things moving in the right direction.”

The colors of money

The University allocates its money into what Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter calls “fund accounting” – divvying up money based on its purpose.

Research monies are in their own funds, separate from money gathered for other things, like tuition, Pfutzenreuter said.

“There are different flavors of money,” he said. “All money isn’t green.”

Likewise, each University college holds a separate account for research, rather than tapping into a general University fund.

“We report collectively, they spend individually,” he said.

Between 2006 and 2007, some of these schools reported increased research awards – the University’s Academic Health Center and School of Public Health each noted gains higher than 40 percent.

Others, such as the Institute of Technology and the College of Education and Human Development, reported losses – some as high as 18 percent.

Mulcahy said these numbers only reflect an individual year’s changes.

“We do expect to see fluxes up and down, and in any given year,” he said. “I don’t place a great deal of significance on an individual fluctuation – it’s the trend.”

The 2006 funding report notes a decline in funding for the School of Public Health from 2005, for example, but fairly flat funding for the Institute of Technology, dating back to 2000.

Student impact

Bruininks said students feel the impact of the top-three initiative in the sense that it’s a “different approach for education.”

“In nearly all of our fields, I think students benefit from learning from faculty members who are on the cutting edge of their fields,” he said. “It makes the education we provide distinctive and very special.”

But even some students involved in research said they don’t always feel the effects of an increased research budget.

Doctoral candidate Bob Jilek is a research assistant who said his project has “good” funding, but attributes the University’s size as its biggest boon for research.

Doctoral candidate Jeanette Ziegenfuss got a grant on her own to complete her doctoral dissertation. Ziegenfuss said in her time at the University, she hasn’t seen many undergraduate students involved in research.

However, fourth-year neuroscience student Anisha Chandiramani is currently researching how certain chemicals alleviate pain.

Chandiramani, an undergraduate, said most of her classmates are involved in some form of research at the University.

“I actually didn’t get involved in research until this year,” she said. “I should have gotten involved as a freshman, but I didn’t.”

Bruininks said undergraduates who wish to do research can go through a program called the University Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, which partners students with faculty on research projects.

UROP director Marvin Marshak said the program is expanding. The current round of research has 374 students, up 211 from last spring.

As the University continues its focus on research, Marshak said it can only benefit the students.

“I know there’s an urban legend out there that faculty members are sacrificing teaching for research,” the physics professor said. “I don’t see that.”

Decreasing public funds

The University’s $548 million research expenditure includes a significant chunk of money from the federal government. Federal funds make up the majority of research funding – $387.4 million in 2007.

Overall, however, federal obligations to University research have declined since 1997.

For example, along with the decline in NIH grants, grants from the National Science Foundation, the second-largest federal donor to the University, have dropped $23 million since 2003.

Mary Koppel, assistant vice president for public affairs in the Academic Health Center, said contributing to the increased difficulty of getting grants has been a shift toward interdisciplinary research, with an NIH program called Clinical and Translational Science Awards.

What are Clinical Translational Science Awards?

• $65 million grants that provide funding for several national academic health centers across the United States for interdisciplinary work among researchers.
• Schools get three chances to apply; currently, only 24 schools have received the award. The “U” is scheduled to submit its third application in the fall.

Receiving this award can leverage access to others, senior vice president for health sciences Frank Cerra said, which means more money for research that pulls faculty together.

Further complicating the situation is stagnant national research funding. The NIH budget has remained relatively unchanged for the past four years, despite the continually rising research costs.

“We have some very top faculty here,” Koppel said. “They are really good at what they do; they do their science very well, but the competition is grating on them.”

Kevin Wickman, a professor of pharmacology, fell into that boat.

One of Wickman’s award applications was not originally reaccepted, forcing him to rely on the University’s bridge funding for nine months.

Like Zarkower, he was able to resecure his NIH funding, but said the competition for grants has gotten fierce.

“It’s becoming harder to discriminate between the best grant applications from the very good, from the average,” he said.

And like with federal funds, not all University researchers who apply for bridge grants get them, said Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health sciences.

“There’s no question that if you want to increase your rewards, you have to take it from someone else,” he said.

Some University researchers, however, are still getting the NIH grants they need to do their work.

In 2006, University biostatistics professor Jim Neaton received more than $51 million to fund Insight, an HIV research group he heads, for the next five years.

Neaton, who has been researching HIV since 1989, said the scope of his project has ensured his NIH funding.

Will federal research funding rebound?

• On March 13, the U.S. Senate voted 95 to 4 on an amendment to increase National Institutes of Health funding by $3 billion (more than 10 percent); it should go on the 2009 congressional budget, which is yet to be signed.
• On March 19, 179 U.S. House of Representatives members signed a letter supporting a 6.5 percent increase in NIH funding.
• For fiscal year 2007, federal funds made up nearly 71 percent of research money for the “U.” More than 43 percent of the $548 million was from the NIH.

“I don’t believe federal funding for research will stay flat,” Bruininks said.

“If we’re doing a good job in doing our work, it’s pretty easy from year to year to get the money to complete the study,” he said. “But to get new money to do a new study is hard.”

Bruininks said he expects federal funding to increase again in the next few years.

Congress, he said, knows “we have to continue to invest in research and development if the country is going to remain as the preeminent force in a global economy.”

The future of research, Zarkower said, depends on that rainbow of money.

“People like me can survive; I can keep going. I have tenure. I have funding. I can survive this,” he said. “But there are other people we’re going to lose.”

2006 NIH GRANTS: $51,933,104

Since 1989, Jim Neaton has studied HIV trends in the United States and around the world.

Today, he’s the primary investigator for Insight, an international organization of HIV researchers. Their clinical trials span more than 300 sites in about 30 countries, Neaton said. The most recent trial tracked more than 5,400 patients.

“We’re looking for clinical outcomes, like mobility and mortality outcomes, and so there are large numbers followed for a long time,” he said.

Supported by an international network spanning from Washington, D.C. to Sydney, Australia, Insight has the support of multiple governments, including France and Germany.

A new study to begin in August will look at when to start HIV treatment, Neaton said.

Pharmaceutical companies have also signed on to help the study, donating drugs to participating patients.

“Per patient, we’re pretty cheap,” Neaton said. “We like to think of ourselves as being cost-efficient.”

2000-02 NIH GRANTS: $1,743,498

Pharmacology professor Kevin Wickman has received more than $1.7 million to conduct research on ion channels in cells. Ion channels influence the cells’ “excitability.” Looking at ion channels allows Wickman and other researchers to study communication in cells.

Wickman began his “foray into biomedical research” in 1991. He came to the University in 1999 and received his first National Institutes of Health grant at the University in 2000. By studying mice, Wickman said his research will ultimately lead to studying “behaviors and responses to drugs of abuse.”

“The common denominator is the use of genetic approaches in mice to understand the influence of specific genes on Ö behavior,” he said.