Is the cost of research a drain on university resources?

That research cost is a drain on university resources may be a good line for administrators to use on the federal government in their quest to increase the funding for indirect costs of research. However, university administrators shouldn’t get carried away by their own rhetoric and lose sight of the global picture. Research is what makes or breaks a university’s international reputation. It is an asset and not a liability.

Soon after I joined the Board of Governors at UBC in 2008, I asked the President what he thinks my role as faculty representative should entail. One piece of advice he gave was that I should not hesitate to talk about the need to strive for excellence, and about the world-class caliber of our research faculty. I liked that!

Indeed, while the university mandate for teaching and training is relatively well understood by the general public, the role of the universities in research and development is far from being obvious outside the academic realm. Teaching outcomes are relatively easy to quantify, both in terms of student numbers and dollars. The cost-benefit analysis of university research is, however, not as well understood.

The situation becomes more exasperating when you realize that even senior university administrators at times lose sight of the global picture and adopt a flawed perspective on the cost-benefit of university research. Twice already I’ve heard senior administrators from different institutions arguing that “universities do not really make any money on research”, and that research actually costs universities a great deal.

I needed to sort out what is behind this state of mind that can have a consequential impact on the core of a university’s mission. So here is my attempt at analyzing this puzzling phenomenon, while giving a rather “impressionistic” cost-benefit analysis of university research.

To begin, I believe that the point of the administrators in question is technically correct. What — I think — they mean is that even though researchers bring in funding through Tri-council grants (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR), the Network of Centers of Excellence (NCE), the Canadian Foundation of Innovation (CFI), the indirect cost of research, as well as academic positions such as the Canada Research Chairs (CRC), those “on steroids” (CERC), and hordes of postdoctoral fellows who perform teaching duties, the university still has to use some of its operating funds to support research and its related infrastructure.

My position is that research performance is what makes or breaks a university’s reputation, at least among the world’s top-rated institutions. It is this reputation that increases the standard, hence the value of a university’s diploma. It drives student enrollment, facilitates fundraising, stimulates  alumni  pride and guarantees their loyalty and engagement. Harvard’s undergraduate programs and teaching are not much superior to those of UBC. If Harvard is on top of the charts, it is because of the general quality of its research faculty. That is what is making the difference.

So, if the university didn’t have the resources that our excellent researchers bring through grantsmanship (around half a billion at UBC), and if it still wants to be a world-class university, then it will have to find internal resources to pay for whatever it takes to support research.

Now what is creating this gross misunderstanding? Why do we never hear (and we shouldn’t) that the cost of teaching is a drain on university resources?

This is because most Canadian universities get their operating funds from provincial governments, which award these grants proportionally to the number of admitted students. This general purpose operating fund (GPOF) is at the total discretion of university administrators, while research grants are generally not. Even when research-related grants come directly to the administration, they are usually earmarked for specific research projects.  In other words, any spending from the GPOF on a research project can be seen by administrators as a drain on their resources, hence the state of mind.

What some of them fail to remember at times is that even though research grants are not directly under their jurisdiction, they contribute greatly to the teaching and training mission.

The role of reminding university administrations of this reality is yet another responsibility for faculty representatives on University Boards to assume.

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3 Responses to Is the cost of research a drain on university resources?

  1. JoVE says:

    I agree. The discussion of costs and benefits is too often hampered by a very simplistic understanding of budgets and values. However, that approach has been bolstered by the move (by governments and others) to ever more closely target various funds, to break down budgets to their smallest units and get them to balance at every level.

    So while General Operating Funds are general and are intended to support all activities of the organization, they are often seen as funds to support the teaching mission. This is exacerbated by the fact that they are calculated based on student numbers with weightings for the perceived differential costs of different programs.

    In this climate, using those “teaching funds” to support research (which includes paying the full salary of professors even though a substantial proportion of their time is supposed to be devoted to research not teaching) seems like a “drain”.

    You rightly point out that research adds considerable value to the other activities of the university. But that value is hard to quantify, especially if you are trying to balance a budget that has been drilled down to the departmental level.

    Step 1: stop calling it a “drain” and start talking about General Operating Funds rather than teaching support. Something I’m sure you are already doing.

  2. Pingback: Return on investment in faculty rarely captured by university CFOs | Piece of Mind

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