Tuesday, May 1, 2007

If You Build It, Grants Will Come?

Or, Could Someone at BigU Please Be Honest and Responsible About Expansion of Biomedical Research?

It’s nice to see that the direct phone line between Morrill Hall and the Strib is still working. Mr. B. has previously commented on the attention that should be paid to claims of millions of dollars in research funding that will be dropping like manna from heaven if only BigU will throw up multiple buildings and hire new faculty, even though we can’t keep the ones we’ve got...

See: Trees Do Not Grow to the Sky or, Why the State Legislature Should Not Write a Blank Check to BigU for Biomedical Research Buildings

From the StarTribune

Last update: May 01, 2007 – 6:04 PM

Editorial: Put research buildings on separate track
For new industry's sake, let go of legislative control.

Minnesota has the ingredients to be a biomedical science leader -- world-class medicine, innovative agriculture and a major research university. What's needed is a way to bring those ingredients together ASAP for some creative synergy.

That's what Frank Cerra aims to accomplish as senior vice president of the University of Minnesota's Academic Health Center. He has a solid plan: Create a biosciences zone on the Twin Cities campus, build state-of-the art facilities, hire 200 top faculty and set out to win upwards of $100 million a year in grants for research that cures disease -- and creates jobs.

Uh, huh… And just exactly how much is it going to cost to hire those 200 faculty and provide them with start up packages? Let’s see a real analysis here, please. It is not just the buildings - it is the money to make them functional. You can just see how this is going to work. Oh, state legislature, you gave us the money for the buildings and now we need the money to hire the people to put in them. And what if that doesn’t happen?

It's ambitious but achievable [sic] -- provided Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature get behind it. Authorizing one building every few years, as the political tides permit, won't turn the heads of the high-caliber faculty Cerra is courting. An upfront commitment for five new buildings will.

My goodness, "ambitious but achievable" - that phrase seems familiar to Mr. B. Let's see what a little googling will do. Would you believe: "
The plan is ambitious but achievable because the momentum for change is ... " taken directly from OurLeaders UM2005 Annual Report. Surely this must be a coincidence? Have the Strib editorial writers become Kool-Aid drinkers?

Cerra explains: "Recruiting every one of these faculty is a three- or four-year effort. We compete with Harvard, [Johns] Hopkins, Michigan, the California schools. It's a seller's market. These faculty want the best facilities to do their work in. That's very important to them. What do I show them?"

Excuse me, sir, we compete with Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, the California schools? Have you been sampling the Kool-Aid, too? Sorry Dr. Cerra, let’s get real here. Have a look at the latest rankings in US News & World Report and see what institutions are actually our competitors. See: "Speaking of Rankings." As far as I can tell the traffic between BigU and the above institutions has only been one way. (Chip Bolman -> Harvard, David Sherman -> Michigan, Chad Boult -> Hopkins...) Fortunately for BigU the California schools have a little problem with the cost of real estate. Californians can sell their houses, move to Minnesota, and buy a McMansion - there are a few examples of this type known to Mr. Bonzo.

The state ought to show them a new, fast-track process to authorize bond issues for four new buildings (a fifth is already under construction), for a total of $235 million from the state and $60 million from the university. The university's proposal would bypass the Legislature's usual bonding process. It would create a separate governing board, empowered to issue those bonds as needed to open one major building every two years.

Sorry, but there is a lot more at the U than biomedical research. Why can’t the biomedical researchers compete with the rest of the campus programs and if their needs are legitimate and overwhelming AND the money is available to fund the faculty to go in the building without crippling the rest of the university, then maybe we can talk about it. A blank check for this purpose is not appropriate.

This idea is making its second appearance at the Legislature. This year, as last, it has Senate support. But it has run into resistance in the House from legislators reluctant to let go of their grip on the bonding purse strings. They need a gubernatorial push.

Perhaps it is not just the bonding purse strings. Might it be fiscal responsibility? I realize that to some BigU administrators this may be a novel concept... Some responsible people in the state legislature may have realized that new buildings will also require additional funds to fill them with faculty and equipment. Sort of like a new stadium will require expensive new coaches to fill the stadium. The march to greatness has required an expensive advertising campaign, Driven to Discover, and the road to GreatBigU will need to be paved with gold. Do you really believe that OurGov TeePaw, Republican vice presidential candidate wannabe, is going to allow taxes to be raised so that BigU will have enough money in the future for ambitious aspirations? If so, then I have a nice maroon and gold Yugo I'd like to sell to you.

On Monday, the Legislature sent a $334 million building projects bill to the governor that did not include the Biomedical Sciences Research Facility Authority. Pawlenty vetoed that bill yesterday, saying it was too large. But he also called the idea of a streamlined bonding process for biosciences buildings "a good idea" that "either this year or next year should go ahead." States including Arizona, New York, Texas and Wisconsin have recently announced similar biosciences building plans. If Pawlenty wants to keep Minnesota in the running for this new industry, next year may be too late.

Uh, huh… Mr. B. suggests an honest conversation about the building plans AND the additional money that is going to be required to hire the faculty and buy the equipment to fill them as well as an honest estimate of how much money this spending-spree will net, particularly because of the currently disastrous NIH funding situation. NIH is the source of the bulk of funding for biomedical research. If a case is to be made then let’s be responsible and honest about it, at least.

An amazed Bonzo is disappointed with the Strib for having taken a position that does not seem to be in the best interest of BigU or ColdState. Rather than cribbing from the University for this editorial, perhaps they should do an independent analysis of the real cost of hiring hundreds of new faculty and a realistic estimate of the amount of NIH funds that could reasonably be expected from the proposed building spree.

It is time for BigU's administration to start walking the talk of responsible leadership and frank discussion.

Mr. Bonzo

ps: If we run out of Coke and Pepsi at BigU, at least there is apparently still a lot of Kool-Aid.

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