Preserving Quality Research at the University of California

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Research Professionals at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

In addition to the Staff Research Associates on the campuses, UC also employs about 200 research professionals at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL). These employees have endured difficulties of low pay and high turnover parallel to those of their counterparts on campus.

UPTE/CWA made presentations to UC and to the U.S. Department of Energy, which is the principle funder of research at LBNL, about how research professional wages have seriously stagnated, resulting in an annual turnover rate approaching 30 percent. In response to these concerns, UC agreed to provide an equity increase to employees of 9.5 percent over the next three years, on top of regular merit increases.

While there are some minor differences in the funding mechanism at LBNL and the campuses, the overall picture is the same-low and stagnating compensation is driving unacceptably high turnover rates. This example suggests that UC can acknowledge the problem it faces in maintaining quality research staff and considers additional compensation as at least a partial remedy.

A. Research Funding
With nine campuses, five medical centers, and three national laboratories, the University of California plays a major role in our nation's scientific research. The public depends on this research to make discoveries to fight disease, to stimulate the economy with technological advancements, and to improve the quality of life through studies of the environment, education, and social problems. UC researchers (including eighteen Nobel Prize winners) introduce discoveries of worldwide importance every year. According to a recent international survey, UC researchers working on federally funded projects rank among the most influential researchers in the world[1].

Table 1. UC Research Expenditures by Funding Source

Table 2. UC Research Expenditures by Discipline

The scale of UC research is enormous. UC research was funded at $1.5 billion in fiscal year 1996-97 (the most recent year for which full UC data is available).[2] Federal, state and local tax dollars combined funded almost three-quarters (74 percent) of total UC research spending. The single largest funding source for UC research is the federal government, which provided $871 million, or 55% of total funding in FY 1996-97. In addition, the state of California provided $284 million, or 18% of total funding; individual and corporate donors provided $314 million, or 20% of total funding; and local governments provided $12.2 million, or about 1% of total funding that year.[3]

This $1.5 billion research program includes projects in all the academic disciplines. Health-related research receives the largest amount of UC research dollars, $674 million in FY 1996-97, or 42.4% of total UC research spending. Next in order of UC research dollars are the physical sciences at $237.9 million, or 15% of the total; engineering at $167.7 million, or 10.6% of the total; agriculture and natural resources at $145.6 million, or 9% of the total; and biological sciences at $128.6 million, or 8% of the total. In addition, UC spends $39.8 billion on research in the social sciences, $24.5 million on education research, $16.7 million on social welfare research, $14.8 million on research in psychology, $11.5 million on research in business and management, and $10.5 million on research in mathematics.[4]

B. The Administration of Research Grants
As at all research universities, UC research programs are directed by university professors, who conceptualize and design the programs, propose them to prospective funding agencies, supervise the programs, and publish the results in scientific journals.

Roughly 90% of UC research is funded by contracts or grants; the remainder is paid for by general funds from the state budget or by other university resources.

In the typical research program, a professor applies for and is awarded a grant-for example, from the federally funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF). The professor is known as the principal investigator, or PI, for the grant. The grant's duration is often three to five years, with possibility of renewals.

The administration of grant money varies depending on the campus, the type of research, and the type of funding. Typically, the grant award goes to the Office of Sponsored Research (or comparable title) on the campus of the lead PI. This office notifies the department, the PI, and other university offices that it has received the award. This office then forwards the grant funds to the campus contracts and grants office that deals specifically with extramural grants, which retains approximately 50-55% of the grant to pay for university administration and facilities. The contracts office then transfers the remainder of the grant to a grant account that is managed by the academic department under which the research is housed. The PI and the department coordinate how the account funds are used, with the bulk of funds going to research staff salaries and benefits and research equipment and supplies.

C. The Research Team and the Role of the Research Professional
The principal investigator (PI) copes with many responsibilities, which include overseeing the progress of the lab, analyzing data, advising his/her staff and students on experiments and procedures, preparing new grant applications, presenting research results in scientific journals and conferences, staying abreast of results generated by other investigators in one's field, teaching classes, and mentoring graduate students. This leaves little time for day-to-day lab management, performance of the actual experimental work, or the many administrative tasks involved in ordering supplies, disposing of hazardous wastes, and maintaining expensive equipment. The typical PI therefore relies on a team of full-time research staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and postgraduate researchers.

The backbone of hands-on research and day-to-day lab management is provided by employees whom UC calls "research support professionals." There are approximately 3,800 research support professional employees at UC. About 90% of UC research professionals are classified as staff research associates, or SRAs. The remaining 10% of the research professional unit are classified as either research associates (for those working at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab), museum scientists, or (for a very small number of employees) as spectroscopists or marine technicians.[5] In much of this report, we provide specific data on the SRA titles, which comprise the overwhelming majority of the research professional unit, but the general information that we discuss applies to research professionals in other job titles as well.

Staff research associates' (SRAs) and other research professionals' responsibilities vary widely, depending on the nature of the research project, their skills and experience, the working style and other commitments of their PI, and their placement in the SRA series. There are four SRA levels in the unit, classified as SRA I, SRA II, SRA III, and SRA IV; the SRA V classification is rarely used at UC and is usually supervisory.

Typically, the SRA and each employee in other research professional titles is a jack-of-all-trades. The research professional combines the expertise of a research scientist to develop and to execute experiments, with the managerial talents of a lab or project coordinator, and with the communication skills of a trainer and a teacher. As a scientist, with a bachelor's degree and sometimes master's or doctoral degree in the relevant discipline, the SRA or other research professional is expected to carry out the long-term research goals of the PI, often working independently for weeks or even months at a time. The research professional is often the only person in the lab or working on the project capable of executing specialized experimental procedures. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a SRA or other research professional to be the only person in the lab or working on the study generating experimental results on a full-time basis. This continuous hands-on involvement in the interpretation of results and progress of the project plays a critical role in UC research discoveries.

As an administrator, the SRA or professional researcher orders equipment and supplies, handles budgets, maintains records, serves as a work leader of technicians and student helpers, and assists in the preparation of journal articles and grant applications. The professional researcher's ability to interact effectively with many people -- PIs, graduate students, office staff, maintenance personnel, sales representatives -- is critical for the daily functioning of the laboratory.

When functioning as a teacher, the SRA or professional researcher must train new personnel, including laboratory assistants, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers, in experimental methods. Instruction of student helpers, who may have no prior laboratory experience, is important for scientific quality, productivity, and safety.

The SRA current salary range stretches from $27,468 at the bottom of the SRA I range to $54,900, at the top of the SRA IV range (as noted above, the SRA V position is rare at UC and usually supervisory). But UC policy tends to cluster SRAs in the lower portions of their salary range. Their statewide average salary is $35,540.

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Top AIDS Researcher Leaves UCSF After Eight Years, Gets an Immediate 25 Percent Wage Increase at Area Biotech Company

Mark Hurt was an SRA III and an eight-year employee of UCSF, assigned to a research program at San Francisco General Hospital that studied AIDS-related cancer. The AIDS research was very exciting to Mark, and he was happy to contribute to potentially life-saving work. However, the low financial compensation made him feel that the university didn't value his work. Mark calculates that, in his last five years at UCSF, his salary growth averaged one percent per year. "It was ironic," he comments, "feeling so good about the work I was doing, but on the other hand the university's treatment seeming to beg that I leave."

When Mark began searching for a better-paying position outside the university, one biotech recruiter clued him in to a fact known among other area recruiters: many firms are aware of the below-market compensation that researchers at UC receive. Mark left UCSF last year for a position at Affymetrix, a biotech firm in Santa Clara, California, where he is doing advanced genetic research. The firm offered him a 25 percent raise above his $35,000 UCSF salary, with growth to a 50 percent raise within two years.