A three-year financial agreement between UCLA and the California NanoSystems Institute came to an end over the summer, forcing the research hub to undergo a number of significant changes in response to a reduced budget.
The center receives $2.4 million in permanent funds from the University of California Office of the President and UCLA each year ““ $1.6 million from the UC, and the remaining difference from UCLA. Over the three years of the agreement, the institute received an additional $3 million annually in UCLA funds. This agreement expired at the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal year, on June 30, according to a statement by Vice Chancellor of Finance, Budget and Capital Programs, Steve Olsen.
At the start of this fiscal year, on July 1, the institute’s budget was reduced to the $2.4 million in permanent funding and money that comes in from grants managed by the institute, said Paul Weiss, the institute’s director.
Weiss said the institute was told the university would not be providing additional support beyond the $2.4 million in permanent operating funds because of financial constraints on campus. The university declined to comment on why it didn’t provide additional funds after the agreement expired.
“The bottom line is that the overall campus budget has dropped quite substantially, and we are unfortunately a casualty of that,” Weiss said. “The financial situation of the campus is such that the resources are not here to continue the support at the level we had before.”
With a smaller budget, the institute has recently started to make changes, such as laying off staff, cutting programs and stalling some research.
Leadership at the institute was aware the agreement with the university was coming to an end on June 30, and had been working to figure out its budget model for when that time came, Weiss said.
“There wasn’t any question that (the agreement) would be renewed,” Weiss said. “The question was what would be the new (funding) layout and plan.”
The research center was lobbying for additional campus support following the expiration of the agreement, based on the scientific success of the institute.
UCLA, which only ever planned on providing additional funds on a temporary basis, determined it would continue to provide $2.4 million in permanent operating funds, Olsen said in the statement.
“Campus leaders are committed to the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, a research powerhouse that is vital to the campus mission,” he said in the statement.
The university decided that the remaining funds the institute needs to operate will come from only grants managed by the institute rather than grants researchers develop in part at the institute, Weiss said.
While the institute helps multiple science departments on campus generate grants ““ providing the space and instruments needed for research or helping in writing and submitting the grants ““ funding from these grants often goes back to those specific departments, leaving minimal grant money for the institute, Weiss said.
While the California NanoSystems Institute now has a budget model in place ““ based primarily on university support and the facility’s grants ““ the research hub has had to put some of its scientific research on hold, cut a number of its programs and lay off staff members since it began operating on a smaller budget
Some funding that would have gone to scientific projects is now going towards supporting the baseline operations of the institute, and the smaller budget currently inhibits the ability to start some new research projects, Weiss said.
“We had a mechanism (to open up new areas in science), which we (cannot fund) anymore,” Weiss said. “Until we replace that, it puts on hold a lot of possibilities to move the field forward and open up new areas in science.”
About one-third of the institute’s staff has also been laid off in the past few months to bring the facility to a stable financial point, he said.
A number of programs run through the institute have received cuts or been put on hold until finances are figured out. Beyond providing a place to conduct research, the facility brings together students from the campus’ different science departments for mixers, speaker series and networking nights, among other events. The Art | Sci Center Lab, housed partly at the research facility, also connects UCLA art students with science students to help facilitate collaboration between South and North Campus.
“The events CNSI held are the only things that bring all of the departments together,” said Lisa Dudek, a chemistry graduate student who works in the center. “The talks were attended by students of every department, mixers brought together students from every department.”
Another notable cut is an outreach program that allowed graduate and postdoctoral students to develop science experiments for local high school students based on cutting edge nano research coming out of the institute. The UCLA students led workshops to teach high school teachers how to do the experiments in their classrooms, and provided kits with the necessary supplies.
The program, which has lost most of its funding in response to the institute’s smaller budget, did not start in September as planned because of its lack of resources, said Sarah Tolbert, a chemistry professor and member of the institute’s executive committee who runs the outreach program.
She said the outreach program is working on finding outside funding to keep the programming running, but there have not been any solutions found yet.
“(The program is) an incredible resource to our local areas, but also an incredible resource to our students, who have a skill and would like to make a difference in the community but have very few opportunities to use their skills as a scientist to make that difference,” Tolbert said.
Students only received news of the institute’s financial situation a few weeks ago, Dudek said. But an initial indication that the research hub was having problems came in the form of missing coffee machines.
“One of the first things we noticed, before they told us anything was wrong … was that the coffee was gone,” she said. “Little things like that are an excuse to get together.”
These events, outreach programs and gathering opportunities played a large part in shaping the experience for students who work in the institute and on campus, and are some of the many reasons students have begun mobilizing to show support for the institute, Dudek said.
“There’s the fact that, tangibly, it actually does make a huge difference to our research,” Dudek said. “But I feel that actually one of the things that makes the graduate students so shocked and upset are all the intangibles ““ just the events that we have to come together and meet people.”
Chemistry students, including Dudek, recently drafted a petition citing students’ disappointment with UCLA’s decision to not provide additional funding. It also asks the university to restore additional funding to the institute, either permanently or on a temporary basis until the institute finds other financial supporters.
“The current funding model will severely compromise the ability of (the institute) to fulfill its mission to develop these collaborations and initiatives, will impede our ability to conduct important scientific research, and will have a tremendous negative impact to our collective student life,” the petition states.
News of the petition, which has signatures from students in nearly 30 departments that use the institute, spread largely by word of mouth, Dudek said. The signed petition was sent to Chancellor Gene Block’s office last week, and photocopies were sent to various vice chancellors and deans of science departments.
The students have yet to receive a response from Block, the other recipients or the university, Dudek said.
UCLA officials, however, said they don’t agree with the students’ claims that the campus cut the majority of its funding to the institute because reductions are for subsidiary funds, not the institute’s permanent budget.
Olsen said in his statement that the students’ claims “grossly exaggerate the effect and mischaracterize the circumstances of the recent decision.”
The institute is now looking to get new financial partners and manage more research grants to supplement the additional funding previously received from UCLA, Weiss said.
“We are working very hard with our faculty, the deans, our partners, and our development staff to make sure that we have the support we need to not only keep going but to keep going up.” he said.