Research Funding and the CSU

Active learning, knowledge construction, literature-based discussion, inquiry-based learning, flipped-classrooms, research experiences… these are all techniques I use to herd students toward engagement with their education. They are now known collectively as HIPs, high impact practices. I’ve written about them before, and they are fast becoming an integral part of the new adminospeak of how to transform education. Which is really, really great, as I am convinced they are the best way to get students excited about learning. I’m just less interested in administration as an idea-factory than I am as financial supporter of the Blake idea-factory.

Some would say HIPs are just “another way”, since many colleagues are perfectly happy with the outcomes of the old textbook-lecture-exam methods they employ. Those are some very good professors, so more power to them. However:

Research experiences often prove transformative in the educational experience of undergraduate students. Transformative experiences lead students to broaden their perspectives. Broadened perspectives allow students to see pathways and opportunities that were previously invisible. Perception of alternative pathways and opportunities gives students experience with the decision-making that will dominate their post-college lives. All that being true, should colleges seek to provide research opportunities to students whenever possible? If so, who should pay for it?

Yes, and the State. As I made clear last time, to the extent that these HIPs are a mandate in the CSU, they are an un(der)funded mandate. Compared to a ‘real’ research school, take any UC as a comparison, here’s what’s not funded in the slow lane that is the CSU:

  • physical spaces for research
    benches, shelves, cabinets, HVAC, water, gas, freezers, refrigerators, etc
  • instrumentation for carrying out research
    microscopes, pH meters, balances, just for starters
  • disposable materials
    buffers, salts, solvents, test tubes, storage bottles, kits of various kinds
  • lots of time
    to advise students, write grants, write papers, communicate with other researchers
  • postdoctoral researchers
    they do the work the boss thinks, talks, and writes about, and they build the basis for their own research career
  • doctoral students
    same as postdocs, they just have less experience and less time, since they’re also taking some classes and teaching lab sections
  • travel
    lab leaders, postdocs, and doctoral students often need to work off site to help/get help from collaborators
  • technicians
    to maintain the physical space and all the equipment and supplies therein

At a real research school, all of the above gets paid for in a few different ways. Let’s take the joint UCLA-UCSB’s NanoSystems Institute as an example. First off, there’s a bit of private investment: the Institute is housed in Elings Hall, the namesake of Virgil and Betty Elings, who donated $12.5 million dollars for the naming honor.* That seems like a lot of money, right? Well, of course it is, but also no, it isn’t: several years earlier, in 2000, Gray Davis authorized the $100 million that really get things started at CNSI and two other research institutes. But even that’s looking like chump change in the light of the $250 million that faculty have received from grants from federal agencies like the NSF, as well as private sector grants. That last number will just keep climbing with every new grant a CNSI researcher wins.

And on the subject of those grants. An average NIH R01 grant is about $2-5 million dollars over 5 years (1). Half of that goes straight to the administration in the form of “indirect costs”. The rest is used to buy faculty out of teaching, pay postdocs, pay graduate student tuition and stipends, pay technicians, paying for instrumentation and materials, and paying for travel. So, even after the major funding provided for the infrastructure, federal grants supports the research endeavor at UCs. If you don’t get an R01 or something like it at the UC, you get fired.

Anyway, back to the CNSI. We’re talking about something on the order of $500,000,000 for this set of enterprises, expended by the state (you and me), the Union (you and me), and the private sector (you and me by virtue of our consumer-power).

And we, society, expect great things for that investment. And I am a believer. The growth of knowledge supported by these funds is so worth 1 day of the Iraq war (2). But we also expect long-term tangible benefits in industrial and medical technology that will affect the lives of everyone on the planet.

It’s a great investment. But it’s not an investment in the education of California’s population. The number of undergrads engaged in research experiences at the UC is a small percentage of their student body.

My school, CSU Channel Islands, is small, too. In Chemistry, we have just 37 kids graduating today (5/21/2016) with a Chemistry degree. Of those, 28 participated in faculty-mentored independent research on our campus (as opposed to some off-site REU). 75 percent!

It is my personal goal to push that number to 100%. And in addition to getting students involved in their professors’ research, I want to see the curriculum transformed to include research and inquiry as an organizing principal, all the way down to introductory classes.

Ok, now I just sound crazy!

Except that I’m not. Research, as one aspect of a system of high-impact methods, should become the way we design the university experience and curriculum, and the CSU administration is starting to agree (3). The potential impact on the education of the citizenry (as opposed to the technology in the citizenry’s cellphones) of research in the CSU is truly enormous. The CSU, at any give time, is composed of almost 500,000 students, twice that of the UC, a difference accentuated by the numbers of Ph.D. students in the UC system. A pipeline of half a million people, all primed to be transformed into alternative-perspective-seekers through a research experience.

Here’s another difference between the traditional research armature and the CSU. In addition to the huge infrastructure costs taken on by the state and UC system, the research itself is paid for mostly through those federal grants I mentioned before. The success rate for those grants is 18%…. EIGHT TEEN PER CENT… In 2014, the NIH received 51,073 R01 applications, and granted about 2,700 of those (4). And here’s a pro-tip: a significant number of those awards were renewals, old-timers who’ve kept the money flowing, sometimes for decades. So the funding rate for new grants is even lower. Seems scary for the average (or let’s say the top 82% of) new UC faculty member.

All that to point out that the traditional funding system is mostly merit-based. I say mostly because, although the peer-review process no doubt finds the best and winnows the rest, the fact that there’s not an infinite money supply means some really, really good proposals don’t make the cut. This works in a competitive research environment, because (though they’re happy to have graduate students teaching your matriculating kids) the UC only wants the best of the best carrying out research. The rest can go to, well, to the CSU!

REMEMBER, THIS IS NOT SOUR GRAPES. Since graduate school I have had more than my share of grants: a graduate fellowship from HHS for $250,000, another $100,000 from the ACS for a postdoctoral research fellowship, $50,000 from CSUPERB, $35,000 from the Research Foundation, and $1 million from the NSF. No, what I want is for the CSU to think about an alternative path to providing research experiences to its constituency.

So even though, yes, I have bought into the traditional system, what I’m arguing here is that this competitive system, is not designed in any way, shape, or form to be an undergraduate learning mechanism. It doesn’t fit the CSU’s educational agenda or model: taking anyone that graduated from high school, and providing them all with an experience laden with high-impact, active learning tools designed to make them into a powerful workforce.** In that environment, maximizing number of students engaged is the key, and a mere 18% of faculty successfully navigating the system will not deliver the goods.

If the CSU wants to make research a fundamental part of the undergraduate experience, the merit-based, powerhouse-creating system that works for research schools presents a… well, it presents a significant bottleneck. Remember, 500,000 undergraduates need this experience!

But there is a solution! Please read my next post for that!

* Also, thanks to the Elings for providing Elings Park, where me and my family walk the dog, and where I’m about to go for a jog!
** I do not agree that the function of college is to create a better workforce, but it is the explicit raison d’être of the CSU.





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