UT Continues to Garner Federal Research Grants

Even as it faces constraints imposed by impending state funding cuts, the University of Tennessee is making remarkable gains in garnering research grants, primarily from the federal government.

External research grants awarded to UT-Knoxville during the fiscal year that ended June 30 more than doubled from the previous year to nearly $180 million. While that total includes a big chunk of a $65 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the university’s celebrated supercomputer, UT’s vice chancellor for research, Brad Fenwick, insists the research growth will be sustained and not a blip.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll grow to well over $200 million this year,” Fenwick says. Pending grants of federal economic stimulus dollars will contribute to this further growth. But Fenwick insists the growth trend will continue even after the stimulus money has run its course. “I think our curve will continue to go up 5 percent to 10 percent a year even though overall federal research spending is expected to level off,” he says.

As boosterish as it may sound, Fenwick attributes the prospective growth to “a transformative realization on the part of our faculty that we don’t have to play second fiddle to anybody in the country.... We have a caliber of faculty on this campus that can go out and compete with anybody, and they have redoubled their efforts and it’s really paying off.”

The payoff goes beyond the fruits of all their research, as important as it may become, or the added stature it may bring to the university. That’s because the research funding can contribute to covering university expenses, which could be especially crucial at a time when UT is facing steep cuts in state funding once the federal stimulus money that is sustaining it for two years runs out.

Many grants cover a portion of the salary of the faculty members engaged in the research as well as the stipends that their graduate student assistants typically receive, thus freeing up funds for other uses. Beyond that, for every dollar in federal grants received, the university also gets 48 cents in reimbursement for what are deemed to be Facilities and Administration (F&A) expenses. Thus, on the roughly $100 million increase in direct awards received this past year, the university stands to get an additional $48 million in F&A payments that can go toward covering everything from building maintenance and utility bills to administrative overhead. The only catch is that the F&A reimbursements aren’t paid until after the research funds have been spent, which can lag a year or more behind a grant award. But the prospect of more federal F&A funds coming in at the time when state appropriations are declining is a very heartening one.

Fenwick stresses that the increase in grants received—and equally important in proposals submitted—spans the gamut of UT’s academic disciplines. But the biggest concentrations are in engineering and the sciences. “The quality of our recent hires are as good or better than anywhere I’ve seen and they come in ready to be excellent scholars, highly energized,” he asserts.

After the supercomputer, last year’s biggest single grant was a $16 million National Sciences Foundation award for creation of a National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBiOS). Spearheaded by ecology and biology professor Louis Gross, NIMBiOS has assembled a faculty of six, as well as 12 post-doctoral students who not only conduct research but also outreach to other university and high school teachers in these fields across the country. Two years of preparation went into the proposal for the center, and UT won out over numerous other applicants, including the University of Michigan and a combination of Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta.

While NIMBiOS has struggled to find a place to house itself, UT in collaboration with ORNL has funded four new buildings for joint institutes in the fields of biological, computational, materials, and neutron sciences. Each of them was due to be populated by distinguished scientists recruited to fill what came to be known as Governor’s Chair positions for which Gov. Phil Bredesen has set aside $6.5 million in annual appropriations. After a long hiatus, four of these positions have been filled within the past six months, and Fenwick sees them making big contributions to UT’s research “flywheel”—a term he draws from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.

“If you get the right people on the bus and get them pointed in the right direction, they will start reinforcing themselves, and once the wheel starts turning it gets easier to turn and hard to stop once it gains momentum,” he says.

So is UT on a roll toward making its way into the top ranks of public research universities, a quest embraced by some erstwhile UT presidents? Fenwick spurns any measures that rank UT compared to other universities. “We measure ourselves against our past performance, not against somebody else,” he says. “We’re going to make a steady march upward, improving ourselves year by year by becoming more efficient and effective.”

Fenwick acknowledges, however, that increased productivity can’t offset sheer size disparities in rankings based on total research dollars. In the case of engineering, for example, he says “Purdue, Illinois, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech all have three to four times as many engineering faculty as we do, so even if their faculty is only half as productive as ours, they are still going to be doing more work in the area.”

A diverse lot of faculty members have led the way in shaping UT’s research grant proposals, and I wish I had the space to list them in an honor roll. But that will have to be the subject of a separate column.

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