Schlissel's challenge: How to fund a $1.33 billion institute

By Rachel Premack, Daily News Editor
Published January 24, 2014

In the realm of research funding, University President-elect Mark Schlissel has a tough act to follow. To be precise, a $581 million act — how much the research budget has ballooned since University President Mary Sue Coleman took office in August 2002.

Research expenditures have doubled in the past decade, according to David Lampe, executive director of research communications. The University is regarded as a one of the nation's premiere research insitution, second only to The Johns Hopkins University in total research expenditure.

Given slashes in state and federal funding, though, research funding will be at at significant risk in future budget cycles.

In an interview Friday, S. Jack Hu, interim vice president for research, said financing the University's massive research enterprise is the biggest long-term challenge the president-elect will face. Hu was selected last year to fill the role vacated by Stephen Forrest, who returned to full-time researching and teaching after overseeing the University's research portfolio for seven years.

During Forrest's tenure, the University’s research expenditures increased from $800 million in 2008 to over $1.3 billion last year.

Still, Schlissel said at a press conference Friday that he was optimistic about maintaining or increasing the financing the University's massive research enterprise is the budget over time.

“I think there's enough support in the leadership of our country that, as our economy recovers, as our economy is investing in the future, a big part of which is funding discovery and research will recover as well.”

From East Coast student to public institute president

Schlissel, who holds a M.D. and Ph.D from The Johns Hopkins University, has extensive research experience in medical-related fields.

Before becoming provost at Brown University, he was dean of biological sciences at the University of California, Berkeley during the system’s severe budget crisis of 2009 to 2010. Mark Richards, executive dean of mathematical and physical sciences at Berkeley, said Schlissel was involved in a campus wide effort to protect as many of Berkeley’s academic resources as possible during the recession’s onset.

“He was working with managing a terrible budget situation,” Richards said.

Currently, 11 percent of Berkeley’s funding is from the state of California, compared to 17 percent in Michigan.

Richards added that Schlissel led new research initiatives in the biological sciences in collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco Medical Campus.

As Brown University Provost, Schlissel led the establishment of the School of Public Health, the expansion of the School of Engineering and Brown’s STEM education initiative, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote in a letter to the university community.

“He has been integrally involved in space and capital planning efforts, guiding $200 million in investments to bolster the University's teaching, research and campus life infrastructure,” Paxson wrote.

Richards said his former colleague, whose office was next door when he was a dean at Berkeley, was a decisive leader.

“Universities can be very change resistant,” Richards said. “I would say he is a person who wants to lead an organization fairly aggressively into the future rather than preserving whatever is there.”

Research funding: Paltry or powerful?

Such a maverick may be necessary to confront the uncertain funding situation looming over the University's research portfolio.

The fiscal year 2013 research budget was a record $1.33 billion, according to Lampe. That cycle, the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other federal departments all increased their sponsorship of university research, a University press release stated. The National Institutes of Health, though, decreased their support for University research.

The situation may change with a $1 billion increase to the NIH’s funding compared to pre-sequester FY2013, according to Matt Williams, press secretary for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich). However, the amount allocated to the NIH is not guaranteed to any university, Williams said, so an overall increase in NIH funds does not guarantee an increase for the University's.

One potential solution to offset a decline in public support is to seek funding from private foundations and companies — an avenue that Schlissel praised in his remarks Friday.

“I remember reading that a very significant portion of the research dollars spent here were raised from non-governmental sources as well, foundations and donors, in addition to relying on the federal government,” he said.

A new means to money

One conduit is industry support, Lampe said. He highlighted the University’s growing involvement in energy and transportation research, like the public-private partnership in the Mobility Transformation Center.

Lampe described the push to identify growth areas in which government and industry both seek research.

“We are being flexible in seeing what priorities the federal government and industry have,” Lampe said. “We are matching where we see our strengths and where they match with what industry needs.”

Lampe added that the University continues to emphasize its “great strengths” in the health system, which is also the biggest part of federally supported research.

Schlissel also led new research initiatives in the biological science at Berkeley, Richards said, and was called a “seminal” researcher in his field.

“He listens to arguments, he thinks about things and he makes decisions,” Richards said. “And I think a university president has to do that.”

A university president, however, takes a bigger picture approach to research. Lampe described Coleman as an advocate for the importance of university research.

“Research is closely coupled with the education process here,” Lampe said, “It’s integral with graduate education and increasingly so with undergraduate. It is through our research that we are able to make our students to be the innovators that are economically successful and competitive.”