By Jennifer Nguyen
The biomedical research enterprise has been dealing with a tight funding environment for over a decade, and universities have struggled to adjust their finances accordingly. In a paper recently published on bioRxiv, Bourne and Vermillion took a close look at the finances of the University of California, San Francisco and made recommendations as to how the university could stretch its limited dollars to create a more sustainable environment for research.
The authors dissected UCSF’s various sources of income and how they relate to the conduct of research. Revenue from clinical research at UCSF increased from 30 to 54 percent between 1984 and 2014 as a result of increased grant support for clinical faculty, likely due to an increased interest in translational research. But to sustain this, UCSF invested in expanding their clinical research footprint by constructing more buildings to house more researchers. Salaries, research support and debt servicing are increasingly dependent on income from new grants, indirect cost recovery, gifts and endowments. The authors warn that this financial dependence on soft money has shifted how UCSF judges its research output to be based on quantity of research rather than quality.
The authors proposed several measures to reverse this shift in favoring quantity over quality. First, the authors suggested reducing the number of basic research faculty to a point where excellent research can be sustained. Scarce external funding sources means they should be more selective with the number of researchers they should be hiring. Second, they advised UCSF leaders to target monies to specific individual researchers or subgroups in a merit-based manner to alleviate the stressor of depending on grants, which may negatively affect research quality. Finally, the authors suggest UCSF leaders better address how its donors contribute to its various endowments by advising donors to contribute where it is needed and deserved.
The measures the authors suggested may work for UCSF and other large research universities; however, it is not clear if smaller institutions have the assets of these larger universities to make such changes. This only reinforces the assertions of the authors that quality of research should be valued over quantity. Furthermore, university policies affecting researchers at all career stages should be evaluated to ensure undue financial burdens are not affecting research quality.
This assessment by Bourne and Vermillion highlights some key issues that UCSF specifically, and research institutions in general, may face and encourages them to evaluate whether they are maximizing their limited funds to foster a sustainable research environment. Follow this blog for more news about funding for the biomedical research enterprise.
Jennifer Nguyen advocates for better training programs for young researchers and is interested in raising awareness of scientific research to the general public and making science accessible to everyone. She received her PhD in Biology at Tufts University and is currently a Science Specialist and Instructor at the Innovation Institute in Newton, MA.