The University of Texas system announced Thursday that it would put another $1.5 billion next fiscal year – on top of about $1 billion this fiscal year -- toward bolstering science research and teaching.
And judging by trends documented in a new National Science Foundation report  on research funding, ambitious initiatives like Texas’s push might be the best way to attract federal money and ensure a funded future.
Data in the NSF report show that, since 2000, the federal government has contributed a slightly larger  portion of total funding for science research at universities nationwide. The federal government contributed 64 percent of academic science research funding in 2004, the highest proportion in two decades. That number is up from 58.3 percent in 2000, but nothing compared to the 1970s, when upwards of 70 percent was the norm. Meanwhile, despite the many Congressional hearings in which legislators stressed the importance of private industry to academic research, the contributions of industry have slightly, but steadily, declined.
Texas officials are taking an "if you build it, they will come" approach to science. They hope that improving research infrastructure will pay off in an increase in the system's proportion of federal funding, and by attract private money to the state. According to Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that “generally, the government doesn’t support [research] infrastructure.”
The Texas system plans to vastly expand infrastructure – 3 million square feet of research space will be added at the 15 campuses, a 39 percent increase – in part, to position itself for federal money as President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative takes shape, according to Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the university system. Among the big ticket items, is a $150 million research center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, and $120 million to overhaul the aging research facilities at the El Paso campus.
“We want to send a message to the national and international community ... that the University of Texas is where the action is,” Yudof said.
Koizumi said that major investments from institutions are really the only reliable way to bolster academic science in a particular region. “Ten years ago, when federal funding for university research was flattening,” Koizumi said, “universities were looking to industry as a big growth source.” Industry funding did increase slightly for several years as a portion of total funding, but it started from a very small base, and has declined from 7.2 percent of money for academic science research in 2000, to 5.0 percent in 2004.
State and local government funding, has tended also to decline slightly in recent years as a portion of money spent on academic science research. State and local governments paid for about 7.3 percent of research in 2000, compared with 6.6 percent in 2004. “Historically, I don’t think state contributions have done much,” Koizumi said, with the exception of particular endeavors, like human embryonic stem cell research, much of which is ineligible for federal funding. “It’s really been up to individual institutions to make these investments. University administrators should be aware by now that industry will not save the day.”
In Texas’ case, both the state and the university system are stepping up. The Legislature approved $678 million in state issued bonds. The university system also plans to use $400 million from the Permanent University Fund, and $450 million in private gifts, $150 million of which has been given already.
Koizumi added that, as federal funds have become tight, the money in some disciplines is becoming more concentrated at a smaller number of institutions that build up infrastructure. The NSF report included data about funding to historically black colleges and universities, which tend to have small physical science research infrastructures. Federal funding for engineering and physical sciences at black colleges declined from 1997 to 2004, even as overall federal funding for research at those institutions jumped about $100 million, to about $350 million. In 1997, HBCUs spent about $45 million in federal money for engineering research, compared to about $32 million in 2004.
Some individual institutions that aren’t life science powerhouses saw their proportions of the federal funding pie slip as the National Institutes of Health budget doubled between the 1999 and 2003 fiscal years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, received the fourth most federal funding of any institution in the country in the 1997 fiscal year, compared to the twelfth most in the 2004 fiscal year.
Officials with the Texas system said they hope to bolster everything from the amount of lab space to the recruitment of researchers, and perhaps even the student-to-faculty member ratio in introductory science courses. Yudof said that changing the ratios were “not in today’s approvals,” but when asked if it is something that should happen with the new investment, he said that “the answer has to be ‘yes.’”