THE YANKEES AND RESEARCH FUNDING
POST DATE June 21, 2007, 4 AM
POSTED BY Peter Fiske
As I read Geoff’s posts about the University of Kansas Medical Center, and the seeming mismatch between what they are clearly expecting with regard to NIH funding and what the national NIH funding picture looks like I made me wonder: how could an institution pull off a major increase in NIH funding?
The answer is simple: hire some major research talent. I imagine that one could do a search on all NIH R01 grants and develop a ranked list of which individual investigators are getting the most money. Hire those guys and gals. Or, hire some of those Howard Hughes Fellows – those guys and gals are loaded.
In science, just as in baseball, the data are available to rank order the players by whatever criteria you want. If it’s money you want, you could assemble the “dream team.” But, like George Steinbrenner, you’re going to have to have a lot of money to do it.
The coupling of money and scientific talent has been known for a long time. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and a handful of other schools have huge endowments and a [halo effect] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_effect) that attracts more money in the form of alumni donations, private contributions, etc. Government money is also drawn to such honey pots because:
This is a self-re-enforcing mechanism that helps the rich schools get richer while the “also-rans” get to scurry around for the crumbs. And when NIH funding gets tight I would speculate that the relative decline in funding is greater for the second-tier schools than for the top 10.
The halo effect also works in reciprocal. Young hot-shot professors cannot help but experience a shiver of glee when they get a call from the President of MIT or Stanford. But the University of Kansas?
This is where shrewd marketing and recruiting comes in. The Dean of the Medical School of the University of Kansas cannot hope to compete on the same terms as Harvard or Caltech. But maybe there are other terms that might sway a young hot-shot. How about a cushy job for her spouse? Or maybe the potential for building a huge research empire may appeal? Some of the top research schools are at a significant disadvantage in a number of quality of life areas. Good luck buying a house as a UCSF professor (unless your wife happens to be an investment banker). And Caltech is nice but if you have to live in Glendale? Forget it! But you don’t want to offer too cushy an environment for your prospective hotshot – you want her to remain hungry and monomaniacally focused on bringing in the big bucks.
Kansas’s attempt to leap over its peers in terms of NIH funding will require some really state-of-the-art buildings. But it will rely even more on attracting the most successful researchers (with success measured not in teaching quality, contribution to the campus or nice looks but solely MONEY). There have been examples where a top Ivy science department has gotten complacent and has been displaced by a hungrier rival. If the Kansas State Legislature or the Kansas Congressional delegation want to help – good for them.
But don’t forget the simple truth of baseball: what sells tickets is the players, not the stadium.