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University restructures research division as funding is harder to find

UND's research and economic development arm will now report to Provost Thomas DiLorenzo as part of a restructuring, according to the university on Tuesday.

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UND's research and economic development arm will now report to Provost Thomas DiLorenzo as part of a restructuring, according to the university on Tuesday.

The intent is to have the division, as well as the School of Graduate Studies, working more closely with the provost's office to put a greater emphasis on undergraduate and graduate research, a UND newsletter stated. The division and school will still remain independent.

Driving the move is the nationwide decline in higher education research funding over the past several years, combined with the loss of congressional earmarks in 2010 and other federal funding through sequestration, which has created greater uncertainty regarding the availability of future research funding, the newsletter stated.

In fiscal year 2010, the university received an all-time high of $127.9 million in grants and contracts, and 74 percent of that -- including $11.3 million in stimulus funding for a renovation project -- were federal funds, according to an annual university report. By fiscal year 2012, federal funding for grants and contracts at UND dropped to 57.6 percent.

Phyllis Johnson, vice president for research and economic development, said the university hopes to receive more chances at new funding through the association with the provost's office, but insisted the decision had nothing to do with funding.


"This decision was made because we always have opportunities to get better," she said.

Impact of earmarks

Fiscal year 2010 was significant for UND and the state of North Dakota.

The state suffered a hefty loss of federal money after Congress, attempting to trim the budget, banned the practice of earmarking money for specific projects. That year, the state ranked second in the nation for earmark dollars received per capita at $233.60, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

UND received nearly $40 million that year in earmarks for research activities. The loss of that money was hard on the university's researchers, who have since had to produce double the number of proposals with lower chances of receiving funding from a smaller pool of money while facing new competition, said Wayne Seames, a chemical engineering professor. He is the former director of the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education Program, a multidisciplinary cluster of researchers from four regional universities.

During the time when earmarks were in use, highly qualified U.S. researchers funded by the earmarks weren't submitting a lot of proposals. But once the earmarks disappeared, researchers faced greater competition as the odds of winning any given proposal dipped significantly, even if the proposals were strong, he said.

Seames said the loss is widespread. Faculty members, for instance, typically have a nine-month contract and summers paid for by research funding. Without it, instructors, particularly newer ones, sometimes have to find other work to get by, he said.

"It also affects how many students we can train," Seames said. "Part of our mission here is to use research as a training tool. We don't view grad students as technicians, and we craft projects around our students. Because we don't have a lot of fixed funding for grad students, we don't have anywhere near as many teaching assistantship positions in my department as my peer departments have."


Effect on EERC

The Energy and Environmental Research Center, UND's primary research center, is the largest recipient of research funding within the university.

Director Gerald Groenewold said while he couldn't recall the typical contribution of earmarks over the years, the loss had no effect on the center and he'd predicted their end about a decade ago.

"I concluded that earmarks were investment capital used to leverage private sector cash, and we basically became a national model for using directed money and leveraging it and multiplying it two-, threefold with private sector cash," he said. "They were not an entitlement program."

Groenewold said the center prepared for the loss by building up programs and that private sector investment in the center has also been strong. Eighty-six percent of its research contracts are with the private sector.

"Sure, there was some investment opportunity lost, but it wasn't dramatic," he said. "What has been challenging is the global economy, and we've weathered that challenge quite well."

In May, EERC eliminated eight of its 270 jobs because of a slowdown in funding from the federal government and energy companies. An annual report stated research awards to the EERC dropped $15.2 million from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, though they picked up again in 2012.

The 2013 fiscal year has been a bright one for the center, and Groenewold estimates it's brought in roughly $35.3 million in new contracts. They were awarded an $8 million deal last week to manage a $115 million oil-related program, he said.


"We're doing extremely well, and (earmarks) don't matter to us that much anymore," he said.


Johnson said she couldn't provide current financial estimates on research funding. With the fiscal year having just ended last week, and the length of grant funds ending at various times, it's "virtually impossible" to determine how much funding UND received or did not receive this year, she said.

For now, Johnson said she doesn't foresee any other future changes to the Division of Research and Economic Development, and feels the restructuring is a positive step.

"The sky is not falling, we're going to go on as before, except I think we're going to do an even better job," she said.

President Robert Kelley, who was on vacation this past week, said in the announcement that the restructuring will support UND's mission to be a premier research institution.

"Teaching and learning and research and scholarly activity are all interrelated," Kelley said in a statement. "Student research creates connections between the classroom and real life, and engaged faculty serve as leaders and mentors in the research process."

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to jjohnson@gfherald.com .

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