UC Merced leads research funds race

WASHINGTON -- The University of California at Merced is starting to outpace some of its more seasoned academic cousins in the search for federal research funding.

It's not a competition, exactly. Nonetheless, it's a dollar chase that San Joaquin Valley lawmakers wish they could influence more than they do.

This year, UC Merced researchers have obtained nearly $7 million from the National Science Foundation. The funding ranges from a recently announced $4.6 million grant to start a Sierra Nevada climate change center at Shaver Lake to a modest $26,400 boost for computer science students to attend a conference in Sydney, Australia.

Research behemoths such as UC Berkeley or UCLA get a lot more.

Still, records show that the two-year-old Merced campus attracts more federal science dollars than nearby California State University campuses or private schools such as University of the Pacific in Stockton.

"I think the faculty members here are doing extraordinarily well," Samuel Traina, UC Merced vice chancellor for research, said Friday.

CSU, Fresno, scholars have received federal science foundation grants totaling $912,430 this year.

Stanislaus State researchers received their last science foundation grant in 2006, the foundation's publicly available database shows.

At UOP, science foundation grants totaled $1.1 million this year, and at Santa Clara University near San Jose, this year's science grants totaled less than $200,000.

Separate missions

The emerging funding differences reflect, in part, the different missions that schools undertake.

Even before it opened in September 2005, UC Merced began billing itself as the "first new American research university in the 21st century."

Research is part of the definition of any university, where graduate students swell the work force. For instance, several graduate students are assisting UC Merced marine biologist Monica Medina, who received a $361,238 National Science Foundation grant this year to delve into coral reefs. Medina and her students will receive similar annual grants for the next four years.

"The issue is not how much money comes in," said Traina, who also directs the university's Sierra Nevada Research Institute, "it's the quality of the research."

The CSU campuses also conduct research, but they traditionally stress undergraduate teaching. For instance, CSU, Bakersfield, received two science foundation grants this year, not for research but to encourage low- income students to pursue math and science studies.

The CSU campuses, more generally, lack the doctoral programs in science and engineering that attract big federal research grants.

They can dream, though.

"I definitely want to see more research money coming in," said Juan Carlos Morales, Stanislaus State's assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs. "Everyone is very enthusiastic here."

A biologist by training, Morales spent three years with the National Science Foundation before coming to Stanislaus State three weeks ago. He stressed that "one of the reasons I'm here" is to increase federal research funding, symbolized by the university elevating his title beyond that of his predecessor.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers pride themselves on their ability to bring home federal dollars, and targeted or "earmarked" research projects have prolifer- ated in recent years. Some think the trend has gone too far.

"Let's put the research at the place that is going to get us the best return, rather than one that has the political pull," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Okla- homa declared in July.

Coburn succeeded in striking out a $2 million earmark in- tended for the University of Vermont. Previously, with limited success, Coburn had used his chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee to hammer university leaders over academic earmarks.

UC won't pursue earmarks

The University of California's stated policy is that it generally will not pursue earmarking of research funds. Traina explained that if funding is based entirely on merit, then "the University of California always does exceptionally well."

Campuses are supposed to get the university president's permission before pursuing individual earmarks. For instance, UC officials had to sign off on efforts to establish a new food safety center at UC Davis.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Merced Democrat, said he understands this position, but he's not sure it's always warranted in Capitol Hill's competitive world. Universities have been hiring lobbyists for an added edge, and Cardoza said he could use greater flexibility in steering money toward UC Merced.

"We don't want to do just earmarks and pork," Cardoza said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.