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University Laboratories More Critical Now Despite Flagging Support

On top of financial cutbacks from the state and federal agencies, many universities face growing public skepticism about the value of funding universities.

by Bernard B. Tulsi

Tuxedo'd body holding a fan of paper money, next to a woman working at a lab bench

Earlier this year, University of Michigan professors Paul N. Courant, James J. Duderstadt, and Edie N. Goldenberg, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, outlined what they considered a failing relationship between the states and the federal government with respect to higher education. They wrote, “Today, the state side of the partnership is failing. Public institutions of higher education are gravely threatened. State support of public universities, on a per student basis, has been declining for over two decades; it was at the lowest level in 25 years even before the current economic crisis. As the global recession has deepened, declining tax revenues have driven state after state to further reduce appropriations for higher education, with cuts ranging as high as 20 percent to 30 percent, threatening to cripple many of the nation’s leading state universities and erode their world-class quality.”

One case in point is the state of Michigan. Columnist Rick Haglund, writing in the area-based publication, noted that three of the state’s leading schools, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, collaborated in 2006 to form the URC with the goal of securing more dollars or preventing deep cuts in funding from the state government, which is battling serious financial challenges.

Such positioning for cash has been the source of some tension among institutions. “There has even been a rift between the three research universities and the state’s 12 other universities, which say they do research too. They’ve been opposed to extra money for the Big Three research universities,” wrote Haglund.

On top of financial cutbacks from the state government, the universities face growing public skepticism about the value of funding universities, according to Haglund. He cited the results from a new joint national study by the Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which found that “most Americans believe colleges operate like businesses, more concerned with their bottom line than the educational experience of their students.”

Amy Coles of the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry setting up an organic chemistry teaching labAmy Coles of the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry setting up an organic chemistry teaching labUniversity of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryThat’s hardly the case at the University of Maryland, where in the fall of 2010, the general chemistry laboratory classes will have close to 900 students, the bioanalytical lab will cater to more than 400 students, and general chemistry for majors will have just under 100 students, according to Maryann McDermott Jones, Ph.D., undergraduate laboratory coordinator, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Chemical and Life Sciences, University of Maryland in College Park. “In any given semester, I deal with about 1,300 to 1,800 students and about 50 teaching assistants,” says Jones.

Explaining how the laboratories are organized in her organization, Jones says, “There is a cadre of about nine faculty members who teach and are responsible for the labs associated with their courses.” She explains that no one in this group is involved in research and that the labs are strictly for instructional purposes and do not offer commercial services such as analytical testing or product development. Furthermore, all activities are paid for with university funds directly.

Jones explains that the university as a whole enjoys an excellent relationship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and that graduate students get access to the laboratory facilities at NIST. “In addition, there are a number of specialized institutes with which this department has connections, and to which faculty members have allegiances, as is the case at a number of other universities.”

Even though Jones acknowledges the important boost that the recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant (stimulus) funds provided in helping universities to add jobs, grow their research, and develop new technologies, she noted that her department did not benefit directly. She adds, however, “The College of Chemical and Life Sciences has been very good at getting funding from external entities like Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and so we have money specifically for the purpose of developing new approaches for undergraduate teaching laboratories.”

Supporting the teaching staff with their laboratory requirements is another team headed by Irving M. Kipnis, Ph.D., who also serves as a lecturer within the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Kipnis’s team is responsible for acquiring, stocking, and maintaining the equipment, reagents, and consumables for ongoing laboratory activities and for responding to any changes in the regimen of experiments in the curriculum.

Dr. Jones says that this is definitely a time of smaller budgets. “When we introduced the bio-analytical labs program about three years ago, we received a lot of funding that came specifically through the college.” This enabled the acquisition of a number of unique and interesting pieces of equipment, which would not be possible in the current environment, she added.

The net effect of shrinking budgets, according to Jones, has translated into a daily need to do more and prepare more students with fewer resources. “The equipment we acquired for the bio-analytical labs, for example, may be appropriate for running two labs for the course in the same time period. Both this summer and last spring, we were running three sessions. That meant that we were using the equipment more extensively than we should have.

“The practical consequence of that is we run labs at varying hours of the day. We routinely end up running a number of different sessions at night because that is the only way to accommodate all the students who want to take our lab courses. To say the least, that’s difficult.”

Vera Sitnova of the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry setting up a general chemistry teaching lab.Vera Sitnova of the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry setting up a general chemistry teaching lab.University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryThe reality is that the college has to accommodate more students with the same resources. As a result, it runs night classes at least three times a week—not the night school, which is separate—for the full-time programs. Jones says that the facilities have not reached the saturation point as of yet. She notes, however, “The practical fact is that we have a fixed number of physical labs, [pieces of] equipment, and teaching assistants, and every time we open a new section of, say, between 18 and 24 students, we need to fund another teacher, which can have a steep price tag.”

Jones acknowledges that such stringencies permeate universities and colleges throughout the country. She adds, “In fact, University of Maryland, at this time, may be luckier than most.”

Focusing on future prospects for university laboratories, Jones says, “We are aiming to make the undergraduate laboratory experience one in which students see the real-life application of what they are doing, and where they can understand how, in our case, chemistry impacts their lives; and there is certainly a movement to make the laboratory experience greener.”

Steven L. Suib, head of the Chemistry Department and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut, says that at his institution each department has its own labs for both teaching and research. “There are also institutes and centers that have laboratories for specialized research such as materials science, environmental science and engineering, and clean energy and engineering, all of which are different and operate in different ways,” he says.

In a number of cases, these centers have multidisciplinary approaches that cut across traditional classifications. While some have been created to address specific cross-disciplinary questions by their founding faculty, centers with multidisciplinary capabilities may be best suited for large grant projects, especially from private foundations, that require the collaboration of large teams of researchers and often have an international focus.

Suib says that he has conducted research in all the centers and institutes at the University of Connecticut, all of which have been initiated by and are being run by university staff and faculty. “At this university there are people who are members of departments who are located solely in some of the centers and institutes because their research falls into those specific classifications. There are others who have labs in the centers and in their departments, and still others who only have labs in their home departments—it works in many different ways,” he says.

None of these laboratories provide fee-for-testing or other commercial services. “There is some incubator space for early-stage companies, but not very much,” says Suib. Sometimes companies move into the incubators to get access to the lab facilities and faculty members, and in some cases they are initiated by faculty members.

Suib says that in the Chemistry Department, each individual is the head of his or her own lab. There are some rule-making entities such as the university committees for safe practices and waste management, but faculty members are in charge of all aspects of their labs—staffing, equipment, and other issues. The Chemistry Department has some special shared facilities, including a mass spectrometry lab, an NMR lab, and a surface science lab, all run by dedicated staffers paid by the university.

Turning to the question of funding, Suib says about 50 percent of the graduate students are paid from external grants. The other 50 percent, because of the university’s service orientation, are teaching assistants, so they are not paid from external grant funds.

Suib notes that funding in general is less generous than in the past. “The places that my department applies to for funding are federal sources like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense. Those are the major sources still. Some funding does come from industry for joint collaborative projects, and sometimes it is possible to access state funds for specialized programs such as stem cell research.”

Suib believes it is true that even the federal sources have narrower subject areas that they are prepared to fund. “There needs to be some applied long-term goal…it is difficult to propose something that is purely basic and get funded now.” He believes that when the current funding, including ARRA (stimulus) cash, runs out, finding replacements will be tough. “There are questions about whether we are heading back to the bleak funding picture of three years ago or whether it will get worse than that… there is a lot of fear out there that it could be the latter,” he says.

Suib’s department has eight different disciplines—analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, polymer, solid state, environmental, and biological chemistry. “We currently have funding in all those different areas, with probably more in biological chemistry and materials chemistry than in the other areas.” He adds that there is considerable interest in the areas of medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry and health-related research, as well as in nanotechnology and polymer chemistry.

University lab management by scientists versus professional managers can be a problem, says Suib. “There are more rules and regulations now, greater accountability, and in the end we are all responsible and need to keep track of the key requirements. Scientists are not trained in those areas, so we either need to have capable staff or do it ourselves or both, and probably ‘both’ is the best answer to this issue.”

Turning to future opportunities and challenges, Suib says, “One thing that seems to be quite fashionable now is interdisciplinary research. This involves departments and centers and institutes all working together in a multidisciplinary effort. Those are difficult to organize and get funded, they have intense competition, and there are ongoing coordination challenges. Nonetheless, that seems like the direction with the most movement right now.”