UT's Empty Research Chairs

Are the university's lofty research aspirations rooted in reality?

UT is sitting on state appropriations from prior years that would be more than sufficient to cover the painful cuts in this coming year's operating budget.

The 5.7 percent cut mandated by Gov. Phil Bredesen amounts to about an $11 million reduction in state funding for UT's Knoxville campus. Yet in each of the two preceding years, UT received $6.5 million in state appropriations that have gone unspent because of UT's inability to recruit the distinguished research scientists for whom it was intended.

For going on four years, UT and ORNL have been jointly trying to fill 10 or more positions known as Governor's Chairs to populate four joint institutes established to exploit ORNL's big-science resources such as the Spallation Neutron Source and supercomputing capabilities. But while global searches have been conducted and and numerous offers made, only one has been accepted. Computational biophysicist Jeremy Smith, who came on board in 2006 from Heidelberg University in Germany, has been largely funded by an initial $2 million Governor's Chair appropriation in 2005 that ORNL has matched.

Meanwhile, some $20 million in state funds has been spent on two new buildings in Oak Ridge to house a Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS) and a Joint Institute for Computational Sciences (JICS). Another $8 million is in the works for a Joint Institute for Neutron Sciences (JINS), and more than $20 million has been earmarked for a Joint Institute for Advanced Materials that's due to be located on UT's nascent Cherokee Campus.

With all that money invested in facilities and all the hype that's been given to how the four joint institutes will vault UT into the top ranks of research universities, it's understandable that the unspent funds for Governor's Chairs would remain sequestered. Still, at a time when the university is facing retrenchment of core activities, one has to ask whether these lofty aspirations are rooted in reality or have become an exercise in futility.

The UT party line has been that the Governor's Chairs could have long since been filled and the money spent if the university had been willing to settle for less than the top-flight recruits it aspires to. At any given point of inquiry, there's always a report of outstanding offers that hold promise of bearing fruit. But up to now, except for Smith, these reports have always been followed by tales of how the institutions where these prized scientists now reside have effectively countered UT's offers.

For all that its ORNL connection has to offer, it's anything but clear how well positioned UT is to compete for them. The loss of the Knoxville campus' top two administrators, Chancellor Loren Crabtree and Provost Robert Holub, has no doubt hurt UT's reputation in academic circles where both of them were highly regarded. And the academicians involved in the recruitment process are known to have clashed with their ORNL counterparts—with the academics favoring candidates who would attract and mentor graduate students while ORNL's emphasis tends to be on pure research prowess.

To be sure, UT and ORNL have collaboratively made significant strides on other fronts that will further research endeavors at the joint institutes. Thomas Zacharia, ORNL's associate lab director for computational sciences who doubles as UT's vice president for science and technology, was instrumental in getting a $65 million grant from the National Science Foundation for what's believed to be the civilian world's most powerful supercomputer. Molecular biology professor Cynthia Peterson is spearheading an effort to get substantial federal grants for a joint graduate student training program in which support of work at JIBS looms large. "We're working actively to develop graduate education and training and are hopeful that awards that are pending at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health will be funded over the next several months," she says.

In addition to Smith, several other UT faculty members and ORNL researchers are already based at JIBS and JICS. So it's not as if the new facilities are sitting empty until more Governor's Chair positions are filled. Smith's work makes extensive use of the SNS and supercomputer simulations in fields as diverse as bioenergy research and cancer cell detection.

UT's executive vice president and vice president for research David Millhorn did not return a phone call seeking comment on the future of Governor's Chair funding. As originally envisioned, that funding was due to have risen by now to $10 million in annual state appropriations to be matched by ORNL. But no new state funding was forthcoming in this lean budget year atop the $13 million total from the two preceding years that remains unspent.

Unless considerable progress is made this year in filling these positions, some reassessment of the use of the sequestered funds would seem to be in order in the next year's budgeting.