Imaginary numbers highlight the Dunleavy attack on UAF research

Among the false claims made by the Dunleavy administration about the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the most noteworthy is the allegation that it does not do as well as it should in leveraging state and institutional funds to attract federal research dollars.

This deserves attention because the governor has proposed chopping state general fund support for research in his new one-page master plan, which would eliminate research at UAF because so many grants and contracts can only be accessed if there are state funds to help cover the full cost.

State policy director Mike Barnhill, who leads the attack on higher education for Dunleavy, told legislators in March that UAF should follow the example of Michigan State University. Barnhill claimed that MSU gets a 29-to-one return on state dollars invested in research, while for UAF, it’s only a 6-to-one proposition.

“I know of other universities, for instance, later in the slide deck I reference Michigan State University’s research program. They match on a 29-to-one basis the University of Alaska matches on a 6-to-one basis. I believe there are other opportunities. Can they be tapped overnight? I have no idea, but I believe there are resources there.”

Barnhill, who practices the art of speaking at length without saying anything of substance, claimed he made this discovery about Michigan State and the approach that UAF should emulate through “research.” He should have done a little more work.

He said this on March 14 about UA funding for research:

“Research I've done suggests there are more opportunities there, not suggesting that they can be done overnight. But Michigan State University in their last annual report has a pie chart of all the federal sources that they leverage. And the state source is minuscule, 29 to one. So we really encourage the university to walk this path aggressively. Make the University of Alaska Fairbanks the premier Arctic university, research university in the world. Attract people with that, that's a marketing proposition that I think could be quite attractive, not just to Alaskans, not just to U.S. citizens, but to the planet."

Without any supporting evidence, he told legislators, “They can operate a world-class university with less funding.”

Why limit the Barnhill marketing plan to the planet? It could be quite attractive not just to the solar system, not just to the galaxy, but to the universe.

Barnhill appeared to be unaware of the success UAF has had over the years in solidifying an international reputation as a leader in Arctic research, which has been placed at risk because of the attempt by Dunleavy to dismantle Alaska’s university. No amount of vacuous legislative testimony will conceal what is happening here.

What Barnhill should have done was to consult the National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development Survey, which anyone assigned by the state to analyze UA funding ought to know about.

That survey shows that Michigan State does not do a better job than UA of leveraging state and institutional research and development support to get federal dollars. There are some schools that do better at leveraging local money than UAF, largely because some agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, pay for overhead, while many of the agencies supporting UAF research do not.

MSU is ranked 32nd in the U.S. in total research and development funding, nearly $700 million in 2017. About half of that is from the federal government, while about 40 percent is from the state and local governments and the institution.

UAF is ranked 132nd out of 900 institutions, while UAA is ranked 264th. UAF had $152 million in research and development expenditures, with two-thirds of that provided by federal research grants and contracts. About $50 million came from the state and institution, about 33 percent.

UAF does better at leveraging state and institutional sources than Michigan State University.

This is one example of the many errors and false assumptions made by the Dunleavy administration in its senseless attack on the University of Alaska.

Dermot Cole7 Comments