Uncertain times for public research in turfgrass

By J. Bryan Unruh

“Publish or perish” is the long-standing mantra in academia. This statement has long served as the motivator for most university professors to keep their productivity up or find themselves looking elsewhere for employment. Not stated in that quip are the necessary ingredients to generate those publications. Today the game has changed and “grants, graduate students and publications” are the measures of success in colleges and universities. But, not just any will suffice—the source of the grant funding, the ultimate placement of the graduate student and the “quality” of the journals in which articles are published are now the metrics used to evaluate professors.

Big grants required

Grants with high rates of indirect costs (IDC) are preferred, often demanded, by university administrators. Federal grants are preferred (and expected at some universities) because their IDC rates can be as high as 50%. This means that if a researcher submits a federal grant for $250,000 through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), for example, only $125,000 is actually available to the scientist to conduct the research. The other $125,000 remains with university administrators and is used to bridge the shortfall between state allocations to the university and the cost of doing business. The costs result from shared services, such as physical plant operation and maintenance, utility costs, sponsored projects administration, and depreciation or use allowance for buildings and equipment.

The problem for turfgrass scientists is that most turfgrass research is “applied,” meaning that the science has practical application, such as determining production inputs for sod production. Conversely, “basic” science focuses on gaining knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of a system (i.e., gaining an understanding of how genes code for a particular protein).

Generally, applied research does not qualify for state or federal competitive research grants, making it almost impossible for turfgrass scientists to obtain large, high IDC-generating grants. Additionally, turfgrass is not considered “food or fiber,” further moving it down the scale of importance in the eyes of those reviewing grant proposals. An exception in recent years is the USDA-NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative where turf is specifically referenced in the request for proposals. Research on turfgrass breeding and sod production systems using municipal biosolids has been funded recently through this grant program.

Applied sciences generally are funded by state commodity groups and industry associations, many of which are incorporated as not-for-profit [501(c)3] associations. These groups historically have disallowed paying IDC to universities, but some are adapting. For example, The Lawn Institute allows IDC (rate not stated), but prohibits paying university faculty salaries.

Similarly, the recent United States Golf Association (USGA) request for proposals states, “Overhead and administrative costs shall be held to an absolute minimum, but will not exceed 16 percent. The USGA will not support overhead or administrative costs for grants of $10,000 or less.” Other industry groups have yet to adapt. The Environmental Institute for Golf, the philanthropic organization of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, does not allow IDC.

Each university has its own policy on what it will or will not accept. At the University of Florida, central administration “charges” the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station 11 percent for all grants, meaning that any grant with IDC less than 11% actually costs the experiment station. These costs are taken from the IDC pool, which essentially means that funding entities that agree to IDC are covering for those who will not pay the IDC. These are real dollars with real accounting principles applied; it’s not just a money trail seen on paper.

Faculties report reduction in university support

While grants are increasingly difficult to obtain, a concurrent reduction in support from universities is also being felt. In a recent survey of turfgrass faculty from across the United States conducted as part of preparing for this article, 63% of respondents indicated that their institution’s financial support had decreased in the past five years while 19% indicated their support had remained the same. More than 81% of respondents indicated a reduction in operating dollars and three out of four turfgrass professors have seen cuts to their technical support staff funding. Two-thirds also reported that their travel budgets were reduced.

Not all science journals count

Scientific journals are now judged and given an “impact factor,” which is a measure of the relative importance of a journal. Journals with large circulation generally have higher impact factors than those where turfgrass scientists publish their applied research results. Applied Turfgrass Science, a science journal for turfgrass practitioners, does not even have an impact factor. This has caused some scientists to avoid publishing in that outlet. Journals with low impact factors are viewed negatively and turfgrass scientists are discouraged from publishing in them. Turfgrass producers ultimately miss out by not receiving high quality, practical information generated from scientific research studies.

Difficulty funding grad programs

A third area of concern involves the placement of graduate students following completion of their degrees. Graduate student placement is being scrutinized by some university administrators wanting to see other universities hiring their students.

Unfortunately, very few academic positions have become available in recent years, and the number of students vying for those positions is high. Additionally, many universities no longer provide tuition waivers or graduate assistantships. Consequently, university researchers must secure grants to cover the full cost of their graduate students. These costs range from $80,000 for a Master of Science student to nearly $200,000 for a PhD student.

Considering the fact that most commodity groups and industry associations cap their grants at $5,000 to $30,000, it is increasingly difficult to fund graduate student education in today’s academic environment.

Change in direction

The changing climate in academia is causing some university professors to consider other options for employment. Wishing to remain within academia, some turfgrass faculty have abandoned their “turf roots,” and are working in areas where funding opportunities are greater (e.g., research in bioenergy crops). This allows them to obtain the high IDC-generating grants to fund their programs. Other university faculty have found that administrative positions provide salary enhancement and the opportunity to no longer worry about having to “publish or perish.”

The previously mentioned survey revealed that nearly one-half of university professors have considered career opportunities beyond academia. Reasons given for considering such a move generally relate to higher salaries paid to those outside of academia (many university faculty are state employees and have not seen salary increases in several years due to the economic downturn); the constant push to chase elusive grant dollars; low morale within academic institutions; and a desire for new challenges. Couple these departures with normal faculty attrition, due to retirements, etc., and today there are fewer turfgrass faculty than in prior years. All of these faculty departures from traditional turfgrass teaching, research and Extension programs have led to what some are calling a “brain drain” in academia.

Eric Miltner was not necessarily looking to leave Washington State University (WSU). However, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with WSU’s shift away from the applied sciences to more basic sciences. Now an agronomist with Agrium Advanced Technologies, Miltner shared that “he has the opportunity to use his skills to move the science one step closer to the end-user, the turfgrass manager.”

Similarly, Rob Golembiewski left the N.B. and Jacqueline Giustina Professorship in Turfgrass Management, an endowed position at Oregon State University, when he was afforded an opportunity with Bayer CropScience. The big draw to Bayer was the opportunity to remain an educator in the turfgrass industry and be closer to his siblings when he relocated to Columbus, OH. Golembiewski stated that, “Working for Bayer gives me the opportunity to teach and educate turf managers” (just as he did at Oregon State) but from a different perspective.

Not all academic faculty departures lead to the “brain drain.” An excellent example is the void created when Lane Tredway who, after 10 years in academia, wanted new career challenges. He left North Carolina State University (NCSU) for Syngenta. “Due to the strong university-industry relationship in North Carolina, the university recognized the importance of the [turf pathology] program, maintained the two full-time staff members in place and quickly filled the faculty position with a very capable young scientist, Jim Kerns. As a result, the program has not missed a beat and has continued to provide valuable support to the industry,” Tredway said.

But, the NCSU example is not the norm. Vacated faculty positions often lay dormant, sometimes for years, as administrators gobble up salary savings or divert those dollars toward filling positions from industry partners who are shouting louder than others and making their needs known.

Impact of industry partners

University administrators look to those industry partners that “put their money where their mouth is” by providing valuable research dollars or making generous donations, and those faculty position requests move to the top. When an industry fails to provide support, their voice is diminished,” Tredway noted. “Universities want to hire faculty that will create economic impact by bringing in big federal grants, creating marketable intellectual property or directly supporting a major industry. The industry must be prepared to document its direct economic impact to justify a faculty position to support it.”

Frank Wong experienced some significant frustrations concerning funding and the direction of the turfgrass program at the University of California, Riverside (UC, Riverside). Much of that frustration came from the economic implosion that California faced starting in 2008. Ultimately, Wong’s decision to leave UC, Riverside was for personal reasons. He and his wife (who has a PhD in Plant Biology) had agreed they would go wherever both could get good jobs and start their family. They ended up having nice opportunities on the East Coast; his wife at the US EPA, and he with Bayer CropScience.

When waking up every day to go to work at a job that no longer brings joy and fulfillment, it is time for a change. Otherwise, bitterness and weariness creeps in which leads to difficult and troubling times both personally and professionally.

Your support is needed

In the survey of turfgrass faculty, the following question was asked, “Has your state’s turfgrass industry support of your program increased, decreased or remained the same in the past 5 years?” The responses were roughly equal: about one-third felt support had increased; one-third said support has remained the same; and one-third stated their industry’s support had decreased.

Given the applied nature of turfgrass research, the private sector will have to shoulder more of the responsibility for keeping universities focused on turfgrass. Wong said that “a research and Extension program needs something in the ballpark of $250,000 to $500,000 a year to fund staff and [graduate] student salaries, equipment and facilities to have a meaningful impact. Multiply that by a pathologist, agronomist, soil scientist, weed scientist, entomologist and a plant breeder, and that will tell you how much support the university needs from the outside to help fund a successful program.”

University turfgrass programs are quickly coming to a crossroad. Will they continue to exist or will they fade away? The answer to this question resides with the turfgrass industry. Will the industry renew its commitment to support academic turfgrass programs by reinvigorating their membership to tackle the funding challenges? Or, will they allow these university programs to fade into obsolescence?

  1. Bryan Unruh is professor & associate director, West Florida Research & Education Center, University of Florida.