Wayne Roberts

UT researchers across the state have been waiting for their grant money from the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas for months. At one point, UT-Austin researchers had $9 million in cancer research grants on hold.

Photo Credit: Guillermo Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

UT faculty who have struggled to continue their cancer research projects because of an ongoing moratorium on the state’s cancer research institute may get their promised money in the next few weeks.  

Wayne Roberts, the interim executive director for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, said there are talks about releasing the 118 cancer research grants totaling $110 million soon. Some say it is likely the grants will be released after Gov. Rick Perry signs a bill overhauling CPRIT, which is currently under criminal investigation. 

It is unclear whether the criminal investigation on the institute will continue. Perry cut funding on Friday for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which investigates corruption in state agencies. Travis County could vote to fund the institute, but officials have given no indication of doing so.

Perry froze the research grants after it was discovered the institute had awarded some grants without scientific review. The bill automatically became law on June 16 because Perry did not veto it.

UT researchers said not having their money has prevented them from hiring graduate student assistants and beginning certain aspects of their projects. Although UT has provided some money to keep research projects afloat, it has not been enough to continue with work as scheduled. 

The moratorium has affected UT researchers in Austin and across the state. At one point, $108 million in grants for UT researchers were on hold, including $9 million for UT-Austin.

On top of the frozen CPRIT grants, UT-Austin could lose up to $18 million research dollars this year under the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

This crunch on research dollars is raising red flags statewide and has many worried that decreased funding will discourage students and researchers from coming to Texas. 

Laura Suggs, an associate biomedical engineering professor at UT, was supposed to receive about $900,000 for a project aiming to prevent the spread of cancer using infrared light.

Without her CPRIT money, Suggs said the project has not been able to acquire the animals to conduct live testing and take her research to the next level.

“We have been able to do only benchtop work and not any of the proposed animal studies,” Suggs said. 

Suggs said UT has provided temporary funds to help the project, but it has not been enough to continue the project as scheduled. Suggs said she is liable for the money if her CPRIT grant does not come through.

CPRIT reform bill SB 149, by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, aimed to reform the troubled cancer agency by clarifying rules on conflicts of interests, tightening the peer review process to increase scientific rigor, improving methods to monitor grantee expenditures and increasing transparency in the grant review process, among other reforms.

Texans voted to create CPRIT in 2007 and authorized it to award $3 billion for cancer research over the next 10 years.

Roberts said the institute is committed to meeting the criteria in the bill and working hard to improve operations and end the moratorium.

“We are currently developing rules and procedures necessary to implement SB 149,” Roberts said. “We will move carefully and deliberately in implementing these changes.” 

Greg Fenves, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, said the biomedical engineering department has not been able to recruit new researchers because of the moratorium.

Fenves said CPRIT funding has been invaluable in promoting cancer research in Texas and attracting talented faculty to UT. 

“It has funded truly innovative advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment,” Fenves said. “I hope the program continues with the needed changes to assure its integrity.”

James Tunnell, an associate biomedical engineering professor, has also been unable to recruit new researchers, which he says has delayed his project to develop a method for a noninvasive diagnosis of skin cancer. 

“If the funds come in, we won’t have appropriate overlap and training of the new researchers,” Tunnell said. “Knowledge will be lost, and it will take significantly more effort to get these projects up and running again.”

Universities Research Conference held in Dallas

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, speaks about reform in the graduate school programs in the United States. 
Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, speaks about reform in the graduate school programs in the United States. 

Editor's note: The following is a live blog of a conference in Dallas focusing on research in Universities. For the full story, click here.

4:30 p.m. - UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa pledged to bring the ten breakthrough solutions to sustain and improve research at public universities in front of state and federal officials Thursday.

The daylong Universities Research Conference addressed university productivity, the role of the private sector in university research, strategic investments in education and pathways to diversity in science fields.

Cigarroa, who sits on the Committee on Research Universities, said the committee will work on developing ways to implement the ten breakthrough solutions. It will reconvene in October.

Public research universities want the state and federal governments to see research as an advantage, not an expenditure, Cigarroa said. 

3:55 p.m.In the last panel, experts said in order to improve diversity in the STEM fields, K-12 schools needed to increase interest in the subjects at an early age.

The panelists said higher education institutions needed to get involved with the local communities and school districts, a recommendation outlined in the report “Research Universities and The Future of America.” 

Denis Trauth, the president of Texas State University, moderated the panel. She said while Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, Hispanics made up only seven percent of the STEM bachelor degrees awarded.

“The future of Texas really relies on bringing women and underrepresented groups into the STEM fields,” Trauth said.

Bonnie Dunbar, the director of the STEM Center at the University of Houston, said higher education institutions needed to get everyone involved in order to get students interested in STEM fields.

“You have to have all the stakeholders,” Dunbar said. “You have to have the school districts, the superintendents, the legislators. And you have to have the parents.”

Dunbar said counsellors and primary school teachers are not always students strongest allies. She said she has heard counselors advise against students going into a STEM field for the wrong reason, and teachers question the need for Algebra II. 

Yolanda Flores Niemann, a senior vice provost at the University of North Texas, said when teachers and parents don’t believe in students, they don’t go to college and the achievement gap worsens.

“The kids didn’t see themselves as college students,” Niemann said. “The parents didn’t see them as college students. The teachers didn’t see them as college students.”

Marc Christensen, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering, said many children have misconceptions about what scientists do. He said he met a girl who didn’t want to be a scientist because she didn’t think they ever spoke with other people.

“If you’re at home, and you don’t have scientists around you that you can connect your children to, their perception is really impacted,” Christensen said. 

3 p.m. - There are storm clouds on the horizon for graduate education the U.S., officials said Thursday in Dallas.

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization that works to improve graduate education, outlined what she said were serious problems facing graduate schools today, including a decrease in U.S. enrollment, fewer international applications and radical funding instability.

Stewart said the ten breakthrough solutions outlined in the report, “Research Universities and the Future of America” address these problems and are a call to action.

“We are heading in the wrong direction in America if our objective is to build a competitive economy,” Stewart said.

A step in the right direction includes three steps, Stewart said: increasing completion rates, making career paths more transparent and enhance federal funding to enhance success.

2:30 p.m. Research partnerships where the academic, government and private sectors work together fuel advancement in research, panelists said at a conference in Dallas.

State officials including Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, Wayne Roberts, the interim director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and Laurie Rich, an advisor for the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, all said collaboration between universities and the state have led to leaps and bounds in research, increasing opportunity and creating excitement in the field. 

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, spoke about the bill he authored in 2009 that allowed seven institutions to compete for funding to become a Tier One research universities. Branch said at the time, Texas only had three Tier One universities compared to New York’s seven and California’s nine. 

“When you go to communities like UT-San Antonio, where these emerging research universities are, there is excitement, emotion and momentum that has been created by universities striving for Tier One status,” Branch said.

Roberts and his agency manage a $3 billion research fund that award millions for cancer research projects to Texas researchers every year. Researchers have swarmed to Texas to apply for CPRIT funds. There are approximately 135 CPRIT grants under moratorium because of a scandal last year that alleged the agency awarded grants without scientific review.

"There were mistakes made, but it wasn't the end of the world," Roberts said. 

There are millions of dollars in moratorium for the UT System, which is causing trouble for researchers who need to buy materials and hire graduate assistants. Roberts said he expects all grants to be released soon.

Rich said partnerships between institutions and new company startups were crucial parts of research. 

“Newly started companies have to have a relationship with an institute of higher education,” Rich said.

Since its creation in 2006, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund has issued more than $200 million to companies.

1 p.m.Rich Templeton, president and CEO of Texas Instruments, urged state and federal policymakers to make investing in public research universities a priority to keep America’s best and brightest students at home Tuesday.

Templeton said there is a disinterest in research and development funding because the country has comfortably been the world leader the research and innovation for about half a century. However, Templeton said the country should not become comfortable in this position

He urged the U.S. Congress to adopt an immigration policy that would make it easier for foreign students to come to the U.S. to do research and also to give federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, more funding for research.

“This statement about heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, it was well meant,” Templeton said. “The U.S. has led in technology, innovation and the economy for a hundred years. That’s not an entitlement.”

12:10 p.m. - Both UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, Texas’s largest public universities, are heading towards privatization and outsourcing services in order to improve and streamline productivity, while saving costs.

Panelists at a discussion on improving productivity at higher education institutions referenced privatization and outsourcing as one solution among many.

Steve Rohleder, who chaired the Committee on Business Productivity, said his committee found $490 million worth of savings and new revenue streams this past year. Part of that $490 million would include privatizing food, housing and parking services. Texas A&M did this in February. A&M System officials said outsourcing these services will save the system $92 million. 

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said an increase in outcomes-based funding would increase productivity at the state's universities. A bill was filed this past legislative session to tie 25 percent of a university's funding to its graduation rates. The bill failed to pass, but Hammond says it would have helped productivity.

“This bill would focus [universities] on completion rates, which to me is the essence of productivity,” Hammond said. “If you look at the completion rates, the sad effect is that with a few exceptions, with UT-Austin being one of the exceptions, the performance is pitiful.”

In 2012, 30 percent of Texas university students graduated in four years. UT-Austin currently has the highest four-year graduation rate in the state at 52 percent. 

Despite the bill’s failure, Hammond said outcome-based funding would hopefully be considered again in the legislature’s special session. 

11 a.m. - Former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson said the ten breakthrough solutions are a great blueprint for making sure U.S. research universities remain the best research hubs worldwide.  Hutchinson said Texas and the federal government need to make research a priority.

Hutchinson said collaboration between business, academic and community leaders is crucial to having a successful research environment. The senator also addressed state and federal funding for research, which has dwindled over the years. 

"Today the state of Texas provides an average 29 percent of funding for state institutions," she said. "Pretty soon we're not going to be able to call them public anymore."

In the 2011-12 academic year, Texas provided $467.7 million, or 18.8 percent, for UT System research. The federal government provided $1.2 billion, or 51.6 percent. The UT System could lose up to $105 million for research under the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration. 

10 a.m. - The Daily Texan is in Dallas today to report on the Research Universities Conference, a discussion on improving and sustaining research in the U.S. The conference is largely centered around a report called "Research Universities and the Future of America," which offers ten recommendations for improving research across the nation. The ten recommendations are outlined briefly below:

1.     Federal Action: The report recommends the federal government adopt more stable, effective policies and funding for institutions.
2.     State Action: Similar to the first point, the report recommends more action at the state level and more state appropriations.
3.     Strengthening Partnerships with Business: The report recommends strengthening the relationships between universities and businesses.
4.     Improving University Productivity: The report recommends universities find ways of increasing cost-effectiveness and productivity.
5.     A Strategic Investment Plan: The report recommends the federal government develop a "strategic investment plan," that is designed to be adaptable and can respond to changing landscapes.
6.     Full Federal Funding of Research: The report recommends the federal government and other sponsors cover the entire costs of projetcs they obtain from institutions.
7.     Reducing Regulatory Burdens: The report recommends reducing, or even eliminating regulations that increase costs, reduce creative energy or slow down productivity.
8.     Reforming Graduate Education: The report recommends improving graduate programs by addressing issues such as attrition rates, funding and other issues.
9.     Stem Pathways and Diversity: The report recommends providing benefits to promote women and underrepresented miniorities in STEM fields.
10.   Internal Students and Scholars: The report recommends the continued recrutiment of international students.

Follow @bobbycblanchard and @jodyserrano for live updates on the conference.