Education
5:25 am
Mon May 5, 2014

As Research Gets More Expensive, Universities Will Be Pushed To Justify Costs

The Cray supercomputer cost over a million dollars to install at UNH, and runs math used in space physics, among other computations.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Research at big universities is expensive, and the price tag is rising. At the same time securing money for research is getting harder as more and more academics are competing for research grants that are less and less generous. This raises a question: are universities that do research more likely to raise tuition.

If you take a tour of a flagship research university – like UNH or Dartmouth – you will see some pretty expensive stuff. Like the wave tanks at the Center for Coastal and Oceanographic mapping. There are two of them, one which is square and deep enough that it often doubles as a dive tank for students getting their SCUBA certification. It can’t be chlorinated, and so it is pumped twice a day through special filters. The second is long and narrow, with specialized wave damper at one end, which neutralizes each wave so it doesn’t interfere with the study of the wave that follows.

The bigger wave tanks here are used to test sonar of the type now scouring the floor of the Indian Ocean searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. The smaller can be used to simulate waves washing over ocean aquaculture nets.

“That’s one of the things that’s expensive,” explains professor Brian Calder, who leads me on a tour of the engineering bay of the Chase Ocean Laboratory, “But it’s not something we could do without. Because it’s essential to have to test the equipment before we take it out.”

A pool at UNH used to test sonar has to be pumped twice daily through specialized sand-filters, because chlorine would interfere with the equipment it is used to calibrate.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Then there’s the Cray Super Computer, which looks like bunch of side-by-side vending machines with planets and galaxies splashed across the front. On the day of the visit Patrick Messer, Director of Research Computing at the university explained the Cray was “running a lot of jobs, it’s doing a lot of space physics work, and there’s other research groups on campus that are using it.”

The computer, including its special room and air conditioning, cost more than a million dollars. About half came from grants, and UNH paid for the rest. But, sometimes you’ve got to spend money to get money.

“We fully intend to get it back within three to five years.” Explains Jan Nisbet, the senior vice provost for research at UNH. She says that in the research world, state-of-the-art facilities help attract more grants. So the Cray – and the wave pools – continue to help the University bring in research dollars long after the initial project that helped pay for them has been completed.

This – in broad strokes – is how research funding has always worked, but that has been changing.

Research Dollars Spreading Thin

For one, research isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

“The easy questions you could do with the simple things,” says UNH Ecology professor John Aber, who’s been conducting grant-funded research for more than two decades. “The yardstick in the field sort of things have been done, and the questions are more challenging and you do need more expensive equipment.”

But also, there are more scientists vying for those grants, he says, and the combined effect is that it’s become very difficult to get a grant.

“The first time I submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation the acceptance rate was over 50 percent, now it’s about 10,” Aber remembers.

And these days research grants – which mostly rely on federal funding for the NSF and the National Institutes of Health – almost always come with strings attached. Some require universities to put up matching dollars, and all cap the amount of money schools can seek to pay operating costs that support research. There are also higher standards of reporting and accountability.

Who Pays?

Ronald Ehrenberg, a Cornell professor who studies the economics of higher education, says the upshot of all this is undergrads bear more of the cost of research. Ehrenberg has found at public schools, when more money goes toward research, “student-faculty ratios go up, and a greater share of teaching is done by non-tenure-track faculty.”

Ehrenberg’s analysis shows research spending has an additional effect at private schools, there “when institutional expenditures on research go up, tuition also goes up,” he says.

Research Costs On the Rise | Create Infographics

But administrators at research universities say this is the wrong way to look at the issue.

“So I think basically I would say no,” says Jon Kull – a biochemist, and Dean of Graduate Studies at Dartmouth – when asked if undergraduate tuition is increasingly subsidizing research.

He notes, as college administrators do, that what an undergraduate owes in tuition isn’t the true cost of the education they’re getting. He says a year at Dartmouth is really costs around $100,000 dollars, but thanks to endowment returns, grants and donations tuition is $60,000 dollars.

Dartmouth’s own expensive facilities, many of which having to do with medical research, are part of that cost. Kull leads me on a tour of a biochemistry lab, full of large centrifuges, robotic arms, and a myriad of small machines spinning and rocking test-tubes full of unidentifiable liquids. At each station Kull points to what he calls “pipetters”.

“This is just for delivering very accurate volumes of liquid. And every biochemistry lab in Dartmouth is going to have a set of these for every person, and these are probably a couple hundred dollars – five hundred dollars each,” he says, detaching a pipetter from its stand, “It adds up, this is why the start-up cost for a lab can be a million dollars.”

"I think this is something that the research universities are going to have to grope with. How much can they continue to load the cost of research on the backs of undergraduate students?"

But in all-told Kull says the expense for research is small, and worth the price.

“The expenses of research are maybe 1.3 times the amount of the awards,” he says, “so I think all-and-all, I’d look at the amount of money that goes toward research as an investment in research, in the same way that we’re investing in our students.”

The universities contend that they’re also investing in knowledge itself, and if they aren’t doing this work, who would? What’s more, slashing research could mean students wouldn’t be able to interact with the top minds who are looking to do research.

At UNH's data visualization lab, researchers can display their data on four connected computer monitors, which are arrayed in a semi-circle for a "wrap-around" effect.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

“A lot of professors here, including myself,” says Kull, “wouldn’t be here… we would have to go somewhere else.”

Missing Out

For plenty of students that’s something to be concerned about.

“You can definitely go through UNH and get the degree and not do research,” says Junior Max Renke is a Computer Science major at UNH, “but I think you’re kind of missing out if you do that.”

The numbers indicate that most students do miss out. UNH says 31 percent of its students do their own research. Dartmouth says the number there is at least 20 percent, though it doesn’t keep track of all the student connections to its research edifice, and administrators think the percent is much higher.  

At schools across the country more undergraduates are graduating with some research experience, but most students are like UNH Communication Science and Disorders major Emily Miller, and Christina Park who majors in Communications.

“I see [the research] on, like, the UNH page when I go on, but I don’t know much about it,” says Miller, while studying on a bench on a sunny spring day.

“Yeah I’d have to say I don’t know anything about it, any research,” adds Park.

But that may change.

Research spending is on the rise at UNH: up from 25 percent of the school’s budget a decade ago to nearly 37 percent. And if tuitions also continue to climb Universities like UNH will be challenged to justify research spending.

“I think this is something that the research universities are going to have to grope with,” says Cornell economist Ehrenberg, “How much can they continue to load the cost of research on the backs of undergraduate students?”

Going forward, expect to hear these schools talking more about the value of all this research, not just to their students, but to society as a whole.