UVa’s Booming R&D Program: What It Means

University of Virginia research funding. Source: UVa.

by James A. Bacon

One can debate how well the University of Virginia is serving the interests of students, families and the general citizenry through its aggressive increases in tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance. But there is no denying that Virginia’s No. 2 research university has been successful at attracting outside research dollars.

Sponsored research funding has increased from $311 million in 2014-15 to $412 million in in 2018-19 — a 32.5% increase, according to data recently released by the university.

“Our outstanding teams of faculty, staff and students across all the schools have propelled us over the $400 million mark in research funding,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill. “Meanwhile, researchers … are targeting interdisciplinary approaches that improve the chances of receiving grants down the road.”

Among the larger grants in 2018-19:

  • Kevin Skadron, a computer science professor, has a five-year, $29.7 million grant ($5.5 million this year) from the Semiconductor Research Corporation to create a new generation of computers that couple data storage and central processing.
  • Karen Johnston, professor of neurology and public health, is using a five-year, $23 million NIH grant (nearly $4.7 this year) to speed the discovery and sharing of better health outcomes.
  • Kodi S. Ravichandran, professor of microbiology, immunology and cancer biology, has a $12.16 million NIH grant ($2.43 million this year) to study vascular inflammation.
  • Kevin Pelphrey, professor of neurology, is using a three-year, $6.89 million NIH grant (nearly $2.3 million this year) to study autism spectrum disorders in girls.
  • Malathi Veeraraghavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is leading a $7.6 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop sophisticated algorithms that will detect and stop global cyber attacks.
  • Jonathan Kipnis, chair of the Department of Neuroscience, received a $5.6 million NIH grant over five years to study the brain-immune system link.
  • Gregory Townsend, professor of infectious diseases, has a $4.84 million grant this year from the Virginia Department of Health to improve the health of low-income or uninsured people living with HIV/AIDS.

Bacon’s bottom line: As always, there are two ways to look at this. The positive spin is that, success in attracting research dollars pumps up the Charlottesville-area economy. Over and above the hiring of research staff, projects such as these sometimes get commercialized locally, creating spin-off enterprises and jobs and enlarging the region’s innovation ecosystem. If Virginia wants to be an economic leader, increased university R&D expenditures is precisely what we want to see.

What we don’t know, because university accounting is so opaque, is the degree to which the R&D surge at UVa rides on the back of higher tuition, bigger student loan debt, and/or higher patient charges at the University of Virginia hospital (which accounts for more than half of that R&D). In theory, federal grants cover a portion of the university’s research overhead, but there are so many ways to game the system it is impossible for outsiders to know if the university is gouging the feds, if the feds are gouging the university, or if something else is going on. Furthermore, it is difficult for outsiders to track how much the university is spending on salaries of superstar research faculty, their laboratories, or their staffs of graduate students and researchers. What seems undeniable is that laboratory-intensive disciplines are more expensive than the humanities and social sciences.

A story-line worth pursuing — and I bring this up not because I know it to be true but because I suspect it to be true while acknowledging that more evidence needs to be compiled — is the degree to which the R&D emphasis of U.S. research universities (including Virginia’s) are engines of socio-economic inequality. My hypothesis goes like this: (1) universities extract wealth from students and their families from a wide range of economic backgrounds, and (2) extract wealth from poorly paid graduate students, adjunct faculty, and instructors, in order to (3) support an edifice of highly compensated administrators and super-star research faculty.

In other words, universities are simultaneously wealth-creating institutions and engines of wealth redistribution. That story-line doesn’t feed the class-warfare juices like railing against “millionaires and billionaires.” But it does illuminate a more nuanced narrative that the United States has numerous and dispersed pockets of elite privilege, and that academe is one of them.

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10 responses to “UVa’s Booming R&D Program: What It Means

  1. R&D is not only jobs at the University – it’s jobs for UVA grads AND those jobs go to UVA students regardless of their home’s socioeconomic status so I can’t quite figure out what this means:

    ” My hypothesis goes like this: (1) universities extract wealth from students and their families from a wide range of economic backgrounds, and (2) extract wealth from poorly paid graduate students, adjunct faculty, and instructors, in order to (3) support an edifice of highly compensated administrators and super-star research faculty.

    In other words, universities are simultaneously wealth-creating institutions and engines of wealth redistribution. That story-line doesn’t feed the class-warfare juices like railing against “millionaires and billionaires.” But it does illuminate a more nuanced narrative that the United States has numerous and dispersed pockets of elite privilege, and that academe is one of them.”

    If we are “extracting wealth” how can there also be “pockets” elite privilege?

    Sure there are high paid administrators and professors but look at the R&D they attract and in turn – opportunity for all their students to work at R&D, intern at the companies doing R&D and as a grad go to work at those companies.

    This is almost like a guaranteed good paying job if you are lucky enough to get into UVA. How can that be a bad thing?

    Further, compare that to other Universities and especially so private colleges… the amount of “opportunity” at UVA is good!

  2. So, who is the Number One Virginia research university — VT? And how much do both universities cross-subsidize their research engines with student funds? I know, we’ve discussed this before and yes it is opaque but it bears repeated attention. I agree with your suspicion, by the way.

  3. This comes from your typical “UVA news” outlet. So what you get is half of the truth, all good parts, and none other half of the truth, which include ALL the loss parts, including the costs drains to UVA, its humanities departments, its non – research faculties, its Strategic (research) Investment Fund, its un-reimbursed costs, its seed funds, and set up and overhead costs, and most of all the costs to its students, to get to this $412 million figure into the pockets of a few. I can assure you that those costs to getting that $412 million were very large, and that those costs came in many different forms, and from many pockets getting little or no benefit from that $412 million.

    For an insight into how all this works, and the real costs of university research, see my Bacon’s Rebellion article at:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/the-higher-ed-cost-crisis-as-rd-cost-crisis/

    Here also you get an important lesson in the news worthiness of UVAToday, and other UVA news. You rarely get the full truth from UVA, only the parts of it that UVA wants you know, and given that most real news is mostly bad news, one learns very little about UVA from UVA. It is a Madison Avenue public relations operation, selling UVA, while most always totally opaque, and/or silent as to what is really going on, despite the fact the public pays the bills. That would be Okay and understandable if UVA did not stonewall information on what it reported on what was going on elsewhere, like the real cost and why of restoring the Rotunta, or the real total costs of ALL university research, including that not reimbursed at all from outside the institution, but paid of funds like tuition. Apparently, even the Virginia General Assemble has not a clue. That seemed clear when they tried to get the bottom of the Strategic Investment Fund, while UVA back then in a flurry of press release that it had little to do with research, when it fact it had everything to do with paying the costs of research.

  4. Bottom Line – if someone is lucky enough to be accepted into UVA -if they pass the academics, they are virtually guaranteed a good paying job. Worse things could happen!

    • No, far too many now learn to steal money from others, be ideologues, bigots and rioters like too many of their mentors, and how to overthrow a duly elected US president.

  5. Good questions, Jim. My question is this: are research universities chasing grants simply to bolster another US News & World Report metric, or is there a real benefit to the education of students? UVA announced its pursuit of R & D escalation under Sullivan, as if it was inherently a good thing. It’s good for somebody, not necessarily students.
    Bit by bit, it seems that outsiders are catching on to the circular, self-serving loop of much higher education. UVA, among others, gives students Ph.Ds, who then go to work (primarily) for universities with post-graduate programs, where they can teach students seeking Ph.Ds. It’s time to question the value of all of this, especially in the realm of public higher ed.
    Of course, once in a while something useful comes academia, but that’s just cover as an answer to justify much insular motion.

    • In research institutions, far more is lost by undergraduate students than is gained education wise, yet the undergraduates pay the great bulk of the tuition, costs, and fees charged by these institutions. Meanwhile many post graduates are short changed as well, living like indentured servants, and then far too often cast aside if they do not quit in disgust first which many do, especially if they do not tow the line of their masters, the tenured professors, whether in humanities, or STEM. It is a system carefully built to benefit the few, the senior tenured professors, and the top administrators who run these Kafka like places called universities.

  6. Echo chambers writ large.

  7. About 29% of UVA’s research budget comes from internal funds, which is very slightly above the average for public universities. Virginia Tech appears to be the school that really is most aggressively cross-subsidizing R&D with internal funds. 43% of its R&D expenditures, or about $225M a year, comes from internal sources, which is quite high. (UVA also looks like it currently gets more from Federal sources than VT.) In comparison, some schools like MIT don’t have to sweeten the pot as much with internal funds to win grants. MIT only contributes about 11% of its R&D expenditures through internal funds. At Stanford, the percentage is less than 10%.

    UVA’s research is very heavily concentrated in health sciences, which is 42% of the research total. It is still, unfortunately, a relatively small player in some fields that may help drive regional economic dynamism. Engineering R&D at UVA is below $50M a year vs. $432M at MIT, $286M at Michigan, and $240M at Texas. Computer and Information Science R&D is about $8M at UVA vs about $80M a year at MIT and Texas.

    Another thing I didn’t realize until I looked up the data is how much of a research colossus UNC Chapel Hill has become. I think of it as a similar school to UVA, but it now has over $1B a year in R&D spending. 25% of that comes from internal sources.

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