Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Vision Unrealized?

University of Minnesota Faces

New Reality

From MinnPost:

By his own admission, Dr. Frank Cerra has hitched his wagon to outgoing University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks. Together, the two men had sought to remake the school into a top research university and an economic engine for Minnesota. But as Bruinerra (a bit of stretch? Sorry.) prepare to exit stage left, their vision is very much in doubt.

 The school was already facing shrinking state aid. But with Republicans unexpectedly set to seize control of the legislature and possibly the governor’s office, and promising swift and far reaching budget cuts, it’s logical to assume that the university’s research ambitions will be, at best, on hold if not severely diminished.

There’s plenty of targets:

Biomedical Discovery District- The state has already approved a bond to help fund the $292 million district. A lot of it has already been built so I’m not suggesting the district will cease to exist. However, there’s more to the district than mere buildings. The whole point of building world class research facilities is to attract world class research faculty. And that takes money.

Furthermore, developers behind the planned adjacent Minnesota Science Park will likely need state money for infrastructure improvements, including moving commercial railroad tracks out of the way. Good luck.

The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics- The highly touted research partnership between the university and Mayo Clinic lives hand to mouth on state dollars and those dollars are harder to find.

Facing deep state cuts in 2008, the university cut nearly 40 percent from the Partnership’s annual $8 million budget. Last year, the university cut $300,000 from the Partnership, this time with Mayo’s blessing, angering lawmakers who had fought to protect the money.

Cerra and Dr. Robert Rizza, Mayo executive dean for research, continue to argue that the partnership has been an overwhelming success. Budget- minded Republicans might feel otherwise.

In the seven years of its existence, the partnership has so far yielded only one startup, not exactly what lawmakers had in mind when they first approved the initiative. True, a lot that research is cutting edge stuff that requires a long time line. But try telling that to politicians whose strengths have never been long term thinking.

Which brings us to…

Decade of Discovery- Without state aid, the ten year initiative led by the university and Mayo Clinic to combat and ultimately cure diabetes could easily become the Lost Decade. Of the estimated $250 million to $350 million needed to fund the initiative, about $26 million would come from state coffers.
At this point, holding on to what you got will be tough. Asking for an additional $26 million over time is looking more unrealistic.

With so much turnover [in the legislature], Mayo and the university will be hard pressed to make their case to new legislators who weren’t around in 2003 when the partnership was born.

The school’s state financial woes also hurt its ability to attract national funding. Historically, universities with weaker state support also see their federal research money dwindle, said Tim Mulcahy, vice president of research.

In order win to grants from organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the school needs to put forward high quality research projects to vie for a very limited pool of federal dollars, he said.

In other words, you need money to put yourself in the position to win more money.

Last year, the school’s main Twin Cities campus won $241 million in NIH money, down 6.5 percent from 2007, according to NIH statistics.

At two percent a year, the NIH budget has hardly been growing, meaning the competition for grants becomes even more intense, Mulcahy said. (Assuming of course, Congress doesn’t whack the NIH budget as well).

“It’s going to take its toll in the long run,” Mulcahy said.

Politically, the university has not enjoyed many friends in St. Paul. Everyone from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney has taken shots at the school.

I suspect the university won’t do much better when the Republicans call the shots in the legislature. At the risk of broad generalization, conservatives typically see universities as liberal bastions of elite intellectuals, not exactly the Republican voting block.

Here’s the main problem. While the university has arguably succeeded in establishing itself as a major research institution, it has not fared as well in economic development. Winning grants and building research facilities are fine but they don’t win a whole lot of political support.

Know what does?

 Creating companies, industries, and jobs. And here’s where the school’s record is a decidedly modest bag. While the school’s Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) has made progress over the years, it hasn’t advanced nearly fast enough to quiet the haters. And it may never.

Cerra acknowledges the new reality. The school must not only do more with less but also reshuffle its priorities, he said.

“There’s no question that politicians use the U as a whipping post to make a political point,” Cerra said. “But hey, there are a bunch of things that we haven’t done well with.”

“We must prove we can work together and get excellent returns for state money,” he said.

But that’s a job neither Cerra nor Bruininks will have to worry about anymore.

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