Win Phillips: Not all gloom and doom at UF
Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 12:08 a.m.
These are challenging times for all, and higher education is no exception. Economic stimulus dollars may offer some hope, but the University of Florida and the state's 10 other public universities face the real possibility of severe cutbacks.
There is, however, some important news for the state's largest and most comprehensive research university.
Awards to UF for faculty member's research projects were up 9 percent from July through December over the same period last year. UF scientists, engineers and scholars received nearly $250 million in contracts and grants for research the first half of this fiscal year — about $21 million more than the $229 million last year.
To be sure, the upswing may not continue. A downturn in the final total remains possible.
But at the halfway mark, the rise in research support seems to indicate something significant: UF faculty remain productive — impressively so — despite a perfect storm of a national economic downturn, frozen funding budgets at grant-making agencies, and the challenges of working at an institution under serious financial strain.
The numbers for research sponsorship are a welcome respite from the gloom and doom of most financial news these days.
At last year's end, research funding for engineering was up 36 percent. The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 14 percent. The College of Medicine, 16 percent. There were declines in a few areas, but the majority of colleges or other units saw at least a small bump in their awards.
Researchers brought in these contracts and grants during a period when headlines talked of hiring freezes, budget cuts and star faculty members fleeing to other institutions. Clearly there is a lag between application and award, but the university's budget has been under threat for over a year.
What accounts for our faculty's success in these first months of the fiscal year? It's tough to generalize, but there are probably several explanations.
One is that UF faculty are increasingly competitive with their national and international peers. The big funding institutions are deluged with applications. Decisions are always complicated, but the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other prominent agencies certainly favor the top scientists in their fields. It's worth noting, federal funding for UF research is up 16 percent this year.
But it's also true that the numbers reflect UF's continued growth as a nationally competitive research university.
We are establishing informal and formal partnerships with The Scripps Research Institute's Scripps Florida, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and Moffitt Cancer Center.
We have greatly expanded our technology transfer and commercialization enterprise, with UF spinoffs for the first time cracking the $100 million mark in venture capital investment last year. And we have emphasized break-the-mold multidisciplinary efforts, such as the Emerging Pathogens Institute, the Florida Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Water Institute.
Together, our faculty's excellence and our growth as a research institution seem to have formed a critical mass. This is clear not only from dollars going into research, but also the results. In recent weeks, UF-authored publications have continued to appear in such prominent journals as the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
No one can say what the future holds, and there is certainly a chance that state budget problems will become severe enough to cast a shadow over our research enterprise. On the flip side, the $787 billion economic stimulus reportedly contains added research dollars for at least some federal agencies — dollars faculty will certainly seek.
UF President Bernie Machen recently suggested that UF should focus on its unique contributions to Florida — prominently including research. Clearly, our faculty are prepared to do more, and to reach higher. UF is already a leader in technology transfer and start-up companies. With that activity growing parallel to research growth, the result will benefit not only the university, but also the community, state and nation.
Win Phillips is vice president of research at the University of Florida.
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