Thursday, October 06, 2011

A modest proposal for Google, Intel, or the like.

A post on quasicrystals will be coming eventually....

Suppose you're an extremely successful tech company, and you want to make a real, significant impact on university research for the long term, because you realize that you need an educated, technically sophisticated workforce.  Rather than endowing individual professorships, or setting up one or two research centers, I have a suggestion.  Take $250M, and set up research equipment endowments at, say, the 50 top research universities.  Give each one $5M, with the proviso that the endowment returns be used for the purchase or maintenance of research equipment, and/or technical staff salary lines, as the institution sees fit.  That could buy one good-sized piece of equipment per year, or pay for several technical staff.  This would be a way for universities to replenish their research infrastructure over time without being dependent on federal equipment grants (which are undoubtedly useful, but tend to favor the exotic over the essential, and are likely to become increasingly scarce as fiscal austerity takes over for the foreseeable future).  Universities could also charge depreciation on that equipment when assessing user fees, making the whole system self-sustaining even beyond endowment returns.  Alternately, critical staff lines could be supported.  Anyone at a research university knows that a good technical staff member can completely reshape the way facilities (e.g., a cleanroom; a mass spec center) operate.  You put all the decision making on the university, with the proviso that they can't spend down the principal.   This strategy would boost research productivity across the country over time, get more and better equipment into the hands of future tech workers, and be a charitable write-off for the company that does it.  It could really make a difference.

I'm completely serious about this, and would be happy to talk to any corporations (or foundations) about how this might work.  


Anonymous said...

I guess keck foundation does the same thing. They provide fund for equipments/lab and not for specific projects. I am not sure about the specifics.

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Anon. - The Keck Foundation is great, though they tend to support specific initiatives. We had (and I co-directed) a Keck Program in Quantum Materials at Rice from 2007-2010.

I'm suggesting something more broad, to correct what I see as a systematic weakness in the American research university system. It is extremely difficult to get resources to replace or maintain workhorse equipment. NSF and DOE equipment grant programs tend to aim for either the exotic (we are going to get the first Widget in North America, or we will develop a New Gizmo with previously unavailable capabilities) or specific investigators' funded projects. That's fine, but it doesn't address the recurring problem of how to replace aging standard machines.

Similarly, having good technical staff around (e.g., a professional electron microscopist to train users, help maintain the tools, and provide technical assistance) can lift an institution's research progress to another level. "Hard money" (rather than "soft" user fees or grant dollars) is essential to getting good people into those jobs. However, in this age of decreasing budgets, it's very hard to get such precious staff lines, either from private university administrations or from public university state budgets. A self-sustaining endowment would be a major help at nearly all places.