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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 96 > Article

Positioning University Research by Joe L. Key

The buzzword on Wall Street in the 90s -- "downsizing" -- has made its way to Capitol Hill. From there, it will quickly spread to the laboratories and libraries that form the foundation of university research.

Since last summer, Congress has been sifting through suggestions and proposals in an effort to balance the federal budget by the year 2002.

One belt-tightening strategy Congress has considered is the elimination or consolidation of some cabinet-level departments. Energy, Education and Labor are all under review, as are the Commerce Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress also is investigating budget cuts for several federal agencies, including the national endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Two prominent organizations that promote research face uncertain futures. For the time being, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- the largest nondefense federal sponsor of university research -- has emerged fairly intact. Congress granted a 5.7 percent increase for 1996, but the buck may stop there. Under the House Budget Committee plan, NIH would experience a budget freeze through 2002.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports the very best of science, math and engineering research, has not fared as well. Congress has passed numerous continuing resolutions that have enabled NSF to operate slightly below its fiscal year 1995 $3.23 billion budget. But Congress has been contemplating much larger cuts -- up to $200 million in NSF research spending.

Compounding the proposed financial constraints is the public's perception of scientists and scientists' perception of public support. In a Science & Government Report article, Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., the ranking democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, is quoted as saying, "Scientists do not have a large and/or deep support network throughout society. They're esteemed. But support for science, as the saying goes, is a mile wide and an inch deep. In times where there's a conflict about resource allocations, science is suffering from the inch-deep problem."

Such realizations have many faculty and administrators at research universities feeling more than a little uneasy despite President Clinton's proposed FY97 budget that increases funding for basic research by 2 percent and applied research by 4 percent. To be successful contenders for federal funds, public and private universities must realign their research activities to mesh with national priorities. And as federal coffers shrink -- and competition increases -- the successful institutions will be the ones that find ways to do more with less.

At the University of Georgia, administrators are moving to strengthen research programs by improving our competitive edge. As we evaluate existing programs and implement new ones, we seek to:

  • Find more effective ways to administer, fund and reward research;
  • Encourage interdisciplinary, team approaches to research programs through seed grants;
  • Make the university a regional and national center for fine arts and humanistic studies;
  • Foster research that involves faculty, staff and students in addressing social problems, community and state needs, and economic development in Georgia;
  • Encourage seasoned members of the faculty to mentor less experienced ones in writing research proposals;
  • Encourage more collaboration with other universities and institutions, both domestic and foreign;
  • Increase efforts to secure research funding from corporations and industry; and
  • Develop a technological infrastructure to improve electronic sharing of information, technologies, ideas and solutions.

With these proposals implemented, the University of Georgia will help secure a bright future for its research programs, just as our changes in the past have helped create our current success.

It's been only three decades since UGA administrators, with backing from state government, decided to become a major player in the research arena. Since that time, the role of the scientific community has changed. During the Cold War, the marriage of science and the military secured American independence. But national priorities today require new directions in research toward more studies that will produce socially viable solutions rather than programs that lean too heavily on theory.

The research orientation at the University of Georgia has shifted as well. From its established base in the biological sciences, especially in ecology, to its more recent biotechnological emphasis, UGA research has adapted to society's needs. The trend has continued through the past decade as the university began to build partnerships with business and industry to develop applied research. The 3,000 percent growth in government and private research funding -- from $3 million in 1964 to more than $90 million in 1995 -- attests to the success of UGA's adaptations.

It's tough to say what the next three decades will bring, but it's a safe bet the near future won't see any dramatic increases in government research funding. Successful university-based research programs will be the ones that take their cues from the federal government: They will be able to adapt to a changing national agenda, shift their focus to reflect federal research priorities and find ways to become more efficient. We've already begun that process at the University of Georgia by eliminating duplication, stream-lining administration, sharing facilities and trimming or completely abolishing low-priority services and projects.

The national research agenda must remain flexible if it is to continue to address the nation's social, economic, humanitarian and scientific needs efficiently and effectively. We, as researchers, must remain flexible as well.

It is imperative that we find the time and mechanisms to persuade society in general, and decision-makers in particular, on the importance of research to our personal and national health and well-being.

Joe L. Key, vice president for research at the university since 1986, also maintains an active research program in the botany department, where he holds a research professorship. His research interests include understanding the molecular mechanisms that influence high-temperature stress and other environmental stress agents on gene expression as well as hormonal control of growth and development through the regulation of gene expression in soybean and Arabidopsis thaliana -- the new model system for gene manipulation studies in plants.


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