Researchers raise issues over funding for projects

Some University researchers say difficulty securing funds can influence their focus.

Representative Keith Ellison speaks with a round table of University faculty members on their struggles with research funding in Coffman Memorial Union on Thursday.

Image by Alex Tuthill-Preus

Representative Keith Ellison speaks with a round table of University faculty members on their struggles with research funding in Coffman Memorial Union on Thursday.

by Brian Edwards

University of Minnesota researchers say they spend too much time writing grants for research that may never get funding, according to a recent survey.
University researchers conducted a survey of 342 of the school’s researchers and released the findings Thursday at a press conference where Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., listened to their concerns. 
Researchers discussed issues such as applying for grants, dwindling research funds and a perceived lack of transparency from the University in research overhead spending. 
“Right now we fund only one of five good proposals,” Jerry Cohen, a professor in the Department of Horticultural Science said at the press conference. “How long can a nation throw away four out of five of its best scientific ideas and remain on top?”
In the fiscal year 2014, the federal government gave $490 million in research funding to the University’s Twin Cities campus, which accounted for 66 percent of the school’s total research funds.
But federal spending on research has fallen 13 percent — $21 billion — since 2005.
In the survey, 51 percent of respondents said they believe difficulties securing funds influenced the focus of their research. And 55 percent said they feel a lack of funds has limited the impact of their research.
At the press conference, researchers said a faculty union would help advocate for academics on campus. 
Pressure to find funding has caused some faculty members to leave academia, Geoffrey Rojas, a post-doctorate in material science and Postdoctoral Association president, said at the press conference. 
Non-faculty researchers also experience financial difficulty, Rojas said.
“Postdoctoral scholars help drive and maintain the research that our faculty no longer has the ability to do simply because they are writing grants all day,” he said. “What was once a major stepping-stone in our academic career has now become a transient, low-wage position.” 
Researchers at the press conference also expressed concerns about how the University spends overhead funds from the grants.
Cohen said the overhead rates — the amount of money the school is able to use from grants to pay for costs like facilities and administration — is constantly rising, and researchers want to know why.
University researchers would also like to know exactly how that money is spent each year, he said. 
The University recently finished negotiating the overhead rate with the federal government, said Dan Gilchrist, communications director for the Office of the Vice President for Research.
He said the University’s costs usually consist of about 60 percent of the grant, and the most they can receive from the grant to cover those costs is 52 percent. 
Gilchrist said each grant has different criteria for what percentage of the money is used for overhead cost, and the individual college receiving the grant has a say about how that money is spent.
Utilities, library costs and office supplies are some of the uses of the overhead money, he said.
“We certainly as a public institution are committed to transparency, and we welcome regular conversation with the faculty over all administrative issues,” Gilchrist said.
Bruce Braun, professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society, said the formation of a union would help strengthen researchers’ work through a united voice.
Congressman Keith Ellison said in his speech that he supports the researchers in their search for more funding and in unionization. Ellison said it’s important to increase support for all research disciplines, not just for traditional hard sciences.
“This is part of the human experience, and we should know more about it,” he said. “And you can be certain that I am standing with you 100 percent.”