U sees an increase in research money

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2010 - 10:29 AM

School has reached "high-water mark" but fears that funding might be drying up.

Research funding is bouncing back big at the University of Minnesota.

The U nabbed 23 percent more in research awards in fiscal year 2010 -- and that's after subtracting federal stimulus money. A new report by the National Science Foundation ranks the U eighth nationally in 2009 among public universities in research spending -- up two spots since 2005. To date, U researchers have received $208.4 million in awards from the stimulus law.

Those numbers, which the Board of Regents will hear Friday, are good news to a university intent on being one of the best in the nation and to a state dependent on high-tech industry.

"It's a new high-water mark for the university," said Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research. Outside funding for research hit $823 million in 2010, including stimulus funding.

After subtracting stimulus, it's still a significant bump over fiscal year 2009, when a drop in awards worried administrators, but just 2 percent more than 2008. "It puts us back on a trajectory that's more consistent with what I would have predicted in 2008," Mulcahy said.

That trajectory has pointed upward, mostly, since Mulcahy took the job in 2005. "Tim Mulcahy. He's the reason," said David Larson, a regent and an executive vice president for Cargill, Inc. "He's been part of successful programs in the past and he's applied some best practices.

"My impression is that it's been a very positive change for the better."

Mulcahy remembers his first annual report to the board, five years ago, plus one day. It was bad news.

The U was one of just three schools among the top 100 American research universities that spent less federal money on science and engineering research in 2003 than the year before.

One regent called the report "sobering," according to a 2005 article. "I don't know that I've seen a report in years that concerns me more," said then-regent Peter Bell. "This goes to the core. The loss of momentum is of significant concern."

This time, the U compares much more favorably.

Nationally, universities' sponsored spending on research in science and engineering increased 5.8 percent between fiscal years 2008 and 2009, according to the National Science Foundation's report released in September. Meanwhile, the U's expenditures grew at a faster rate: 8.5 percent.

Comparing the most recent year is difficult. But the U's expenditures saw even greater growth in 2010 -- which was "somewhat unexpected since there was a notable decline in awards reported in FY 2009," according to the U's annual research report.

But challenges lurk.

The vast majority of the U's annual licensing income comes from Ziagen, a blockbuster AIDS treatment. But patents are expiring, and in 2010, the U's total gross revenues from technology commercialization fell $20 million, to $75.2 million, according to the annual report. Royalties from Ziagen, licensed to GlaxoSmithKline, are expected to continue declining over the next two years.

On Friday, the Regents will OK changes to a policy so that it allows the Office for Technology Commercialization to collect 15 percent of payments the U receives to cover administrative costs.

"We have not had to do this in the past because we had the luxury of the sizable royalty stream from the Glaxo patent," Mulcahy said. "That stream is drying up."

State and federal money might be drying up, too.

Stimulus funding will fall off, state funding could be cut. And new faces in the federal government -- universities' main source for research funding -- are pledging to spend less.

Charts show that when state funding falls off, it's followed by a drop or stagnation in the U's research growth rate.

"Right now, the University of Minnesota is doing what the state of Minnesota needs it to do," Mulcahy said. "I'm afraid that if we continue to get cut at the state level, that progress you see here is also going to go back into decline."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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