Tough grant outlook hits U

With federal funding for research declining, the University faces tough competition.

Than Tibbetts

For University researchers, grabbing a slice of money from the research-funding pie is getting more difficult.

As government grants and contracts have spread across an increasing number of applicants, University officials said they will have to work harder to get research dollars.

University Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy said the amount of money the federal government has available for research is dwindling. Paying for the war in Iraq, hurricane relief efforts and preparing for a possible bird flu pandemic have all cut into Uncle Sam’s budget.

“The federal government is really stretched,” he said. “The funding they have available for research is not even keeping up with inflation.”

During the first quarter of fiscal 2005-2006, the University received more than $216 million in grants and contracts, 6.3 percent more than last year’s first quarter.

While these numbers may seem promising, Mulcahy cautioned that a year is not long enough to draw a trend in research dollars.

Although the number of institutions seeking federal money likely is increasing as well, the University isn’t necessarily competing with all of them.

Regent Steven Hunter said university-level research often doesn’t compete directly with many corporations because most of the companies are developing applications for the discoveries in basic science that happen at universities.

One area in which competition is more likely is the area of health care, Hunter said. But this area may also be conducive to collaboration, he said. He cited the University’s budding partnership with Mayo Clinic as an example.

Regent David Larson said a cultural change may be needed at the University to take advantage of its “intellectual capital,” such as investments in and royalties from breakthroughs developed at the University.

“The biggest opportunity for us in this area of research to increase revenues is to do a much better job of marketing our intellectual capital,” he said.

Even if the University had retained a 1 percent or 2 percent stake in Medtronic ” the Minneapolis-based medical device company founded in 1949, some of whose original research was conducted at the University ” Larson said, the University’s bottom line would have benefited significantly.

Regent Clyde Allen said that although the University’s base budget isn’t directly affected by research money, research is part of the lifeblood of the University’s academic mission.

“We’re going after (research dollars) to make the University a very lively research institution,” he said.

On a larger scale, Mulcahy said, many state universities are viewed by states as engines of economic development and growth in the region.

This has led the University and others across the country to develop public-private partnerships, such as University Enterprise Laboratories in St. Paul, which takes publicly funded research and develops marketable products and applications.

Beyond local economics, Mulcahy said, the U.S. government needs to continue to invest in research lest other countries investing heavily in research negate the United States’ advantage.

“I think we have very competitive people on campus, and we’ll continue to do well,” Mulcahy said. “We’re just going to have to work that much harder to do it.”