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Perspective On: An Academic Research Lab | Funding Challenges Remain

Academic labs attract stimulus money but funding challenges remain

by Bernard B. Tulsi

Three professors in lab coats

The Obama administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan—unveiled in February of this year—included approximately $16 billion for the federal agencies that provide the lion’s share of the funding for academic research institutions.

The stimulus package allocated $10 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), made up of $8.5 billion for research and $1.5 billion for university research facilities. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will draw down $3 billion—$2.5 billion for research, $400 million for infrastructure and $100 million for education. Other government agencies receiving funding under the stimulus package include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—$1 billion, including $400 million for climate change research—and the Department of Energy (DOE), which will receive $2 billion for scientific research.

Over the years, federal agencies have emerged as the primary source of funding for academic research institutions, which also enjoy some support from industry. To be sure, industry and national laboratories garner considerably more federal R&D money than universities do. But academic institutions have tapped federal funds quite successfully because of the institutions’ unique and essential role in basic research. In addition, they are home to the country’s leading science and technology talent and they have an indispensable role in educating the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Case in point—Dartmouth University. The Ivy League institution’s Office of Sponsored Projects showed that it received $80.4 million from the NIH, $8.22 million from the NSF, $1.74 million from NASA and $897,698 from DOE for fiscal 2007—the most recent year available—which paid for research at the College, Dartmouth Medical School and the Thayer School of Engineering.

A number of universities have created websites indicating the new sources of funding and the procedures for accessing them. The sites also detail the steps the respective universities’ own faculty and researchers must take to be in compliance with the universities’ procedures as well as those of the funding sources, and in some cases they even outline the universities’ strategies for participating in the recovery (stimulus) programs.

In mid-May this year, the NSF, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), advertised its $200 million program to support the repair and renovation (and replacement in some cases) of the country’s academic research facilities, as part of the Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) program. According to NSF estimates, the agency expects to support some 100–120 projects, 100 of which will receive $0.25 million to $2 million each, 6 to 10 projects ranging from $2 million to $5 million, and 3 to 5 projects of between $5 million and $10 million. In addition, the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program is expected to make 400 equipment grants ranging from $100,000 to $6 million each.

Such support is seen as absolutely necessary by Steven Beckwith, vice president for research and graduate studies of the University of California system, which operates 10 university campuses and manages three national laboratories (since their inception—about seven decades ago) for the DOE—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), both in California, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, which collectively have some 21,000 workers and $4 billion in annual budgets.

Beckwith says the great universities in the U.S. have had an enormous impact on raising the standard of living and ensuring that the American people are healthy and well fed and have opportunities based on the latest technologies, such as moving into high-tech jobs.

“This will be more important in the future because the economies of all rich countries are moving away from mostly agricultural and industrial economies to more knowledge-based industries, which will require knowledge workers who need to get their training for the most part from the universities,” says Beckwith.

Scope and organization

For some time now, academic institutions have organized and managed their laboratories in three broad categories: undergraduate, graduate and research centers or institutes.

Almost every course in the undergraduate science and engineering curriculum has associated laboratory work. This exposes students to the lab environment, where they develop confidence and learn essential techniques as well as fulfill the educational mission of the institutions.

“The bulk of academic laboratory research is at the graduate level and within the research centers,” says Professor Cecil Dybowski, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware.

Still, educational and career objectives must also be addressed at the graduate or more research-intensive level. “In the research setting, there is a need to provide services, but simultaneously there is a dominant obligation to educate and to provide professional development and career preparation for students,” says Dybowski.

In the more research-oriented setting, faculty members operate their labs like small businesses. “The faculty member will set out contracts much like an engineering firm, with one key difference—the deliverables are much more nebulous,” he says.

While all disciplines have roughly the same responsibilities, Dybowski says that there is variation in how different interests are approached. “In engineering, the work of the laboratory has a contractual orientation, whereas in science, like chemistry, biology, physics or geology, the motivation is more from the person, and a certain amount of salesmanship is required,” says Dybowski.

“You have constantly to be investigating how the subjects you are interested in fit in with particular programs of mission-oriented agencies or foundations,” he says, noting that an organization like the NSF offers more undirected funding in a diverse set of areas, and researchers are less restricted to a specific mission, though this is changing too.

The recently built two-story Magnet Hall at the University of Delaware The recently built two-story Magnet Hall at the University of Delaware contains NMR spectrometers at multiple field strengths that are used in chemistry and allied fields. With both solid-state and solutionstate capabilities, the multinuclear spectroscopic facility addresses a wide variety of scientific questions.Faculty members once operated their laboratories independently, not as part of a group. While this approach still exists, much more cross-disciplinary collaboration is being promoted within universities. The view seems to be that “problems that need to be solved can’t be solved by one person anymore,” says Dybowski.

As a result, multiple faculty members from different disciplines increasingly work together, an approach that has been common in medical research. This has led to the creation of research centers and institutes involving several faculty members and their students, often led by one faculty member. Such centers concentrate on particular issues, and their names reflect their focus—such as center for renewable energy research, or a particular disease or aspect of it, among others. “These centers seek funding as a group, and the sums involved are often quite large,” says Dybowski.

Often these centers concentrate on applied research to create products, and they have been known to spin off into independent companies. In fact, the Bayh-Dole Act enacted by Congress in 1980 encourages innovation by requiring university researchers to spin off marketable products from their grant-supported initiatives.

Dybowski says that this may well be the way science will progress in the future and that while this is a nationwide trend, it is by no means unique to the United States.

He believes that one major drawback to this approach is that the institutions’ principal mission—education of students—may suffer from inadequate attention. “It is inescapable that we need to be near the people in our disciplines to form a cohesive unit from the teaching standpoint, and this unit is not necessarily the same as the integrated group for research. This creates tension,” he says.


In keeping with their nonprofit status, universities generally maintain that they put money into the research effort and that laboratories represent a fundamental cost without any monetary return.

But research activities allow money to flow into universities, thereby enhancing the overall economic success of the institutions, according to Dybowski. Research requires equipment and infrastructure, and the university needs to hire qualified personnel to install and operate them. This establishes a strong basis for the universities to request more money from funding sources.

In general, all grants include indirect costs based on a negotiated formula— often referred to as the escalator. Once the direct cost is known, it is multiplied by the escalator to come up with the total amount for the grant. Dybowski says that in the case of his activities at the University of Delaware, the escalator is 53 percent, so a grant with direct costs of $100,000 will end up with total costs of $153,000. The escalator varies by institutions, and in some could be as high as 101 percent. Such funds are used by the institutions to provide overall support.

In the University of California system, the fees from managing the national laboratories are put back into UC’s programs for its laboratory researchers. Today that amounts to some $19 million, which is handled through Beckwith’s office.

He says that there are several types of laboratory research organizations in the UC system. “Some of them require multitalented teams with various kinds of expertise. Sometimes they could be found on a single campus but drawn from different departments. In other cases, they may be drawn from different campuses, in which case they are funded by the UC systemwide office.”

With respect to indirect costs, Beckwith says that because the university has to provide laboratory and office space, these are covered in the indirect costs category from grants. “In most cases, what we charge against the research grant is not fully what it costs to support the research, so the university does provide a bit of subsidy for research.”

He notes that in the UC system, the typical researcher in a laboratory still has the basic support he or she had before—access to equipment, peer expertise, office and lab space, and guaranteed salaries. This is also true for researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is still a part of the UC system. Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos researchers operate within limited liability companies and have a different funding arrangement.


There is a sense in some quarters that there is a dearth of information and educational opportunities pertinent to the management of the modern laboratory. This led to the creation of the Association of Laboratory Managers (ALMA) in the 1980s, a time when expensive and complicated analytical instrumentation funded by the NSF needed to be managed centrally in chemistry departments, according to current ALMA Executive Director John Sadowski.

Northwestern University’s (Evanston, Illinois) chemistry department (among others) played a central role in raising awareness for the need to focus on laboratory management. One of its professors, Claude Lucchesi (now retired), co-founded ALMA along with Tom Lyttle, who is now affiliated with Water Management Consultants (Ponce Inlet, Florida).

According to Sadowski, the management of the modern laboratory requires both technical and managerial skills. His organization takes the position that while most laboratory heads excel at the technical aspects of their responsibilities, “managerial skills are obtained on the job in a haphazard manner.”

According to Sadowski, the management of the modern laboratory requires both technical and managerial skills. His organization takes the position that while most laboratory heads excel at the technical aspects of their responsibilities, “managerial skills are obtained on the job in a haphazard manner.”

“In the center setting, on the other hand, the scientists who direct the institute may not necessarily have such direct contact with the people in the laboratories,” he says.

Beckwith by and large disagrees with the notion that the labs suffer from management inadequacies. “These are enormous organizations with management at several different levels. The leaders have strong scientific skills, and they set an overall vision and direction for the laboratory. They always surround themselves with people who are versed in professional management techniques to help them carry out their mission.”

“I believe that the laboratory directors are often themselves quite good managers and the fact that they have scientific training is only a plus for their overall mission—overall, I believe the labs are quite well managed,” he says.

Future prospects

Despite the influx in new stimulus or recovery funding and the general recognition that university labs are essential to the progress of society and the well-being of its people, the future of academic research appears far from rosy.

“In the short run, the public universities are suffering very badly, especially in the state of California, but many other states have been unwilling to support the core teaching functions of the universities as they have in the past.

“So I think that the great public university systems, such as the UC system, must find ways to maintain our quality in the face of decreasing public funds,” says Beckwith.