Preserving Quality Research at the University of California

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III. How UC Diverts Federal and State Funds Granted for Researcher Compensation

AIDS Researcher Leaves After 14 Years in which "Outstanding" Evaluations Earned Her Only 2-3 Percent Annual Pay Increases; New Job Pays 22 Percent More; Six Months After Leaving, UC Still Can't Find Replacement

Caroline Ignacio worked at UCSD as a SRA III for nearly fourteen years, studying genetic mutations of HIV and the effectiveness of protease inhibitors in eliminating HIV. The university regularly rewarded Caroline's outstanding evaluations with meager pay increases of 2-3 percent. This, combined with a general feeling that the university lacked commitment to staff, led Caroline finally to leave UCSD in early 1998.

She took a position at Genset Corporation, a genetics research firm just up the street from UCSD, where she was offered a $43,000 salary - up from $35,000 at UCSD. Caroline is happier with the environment at Genset, as the company actively seeks to keep staff satisfied and motivated. In addition to her research work, Caroline assists Genset with interviews and hiring. Many of the applicants say that they would never work for UC because they have heard so many bad things about its employment practices.

Meanwhile, several UCSD HIV studies in which Caroline was involved may never be completed, since she is no longer available to provide the necessary support and continuity. As of July 1998, her former lab had yet to find her replacement. When the program does find a replacement, Caroline estimates that it will take six months to bring the new hire up to proficient levels in the program.


UC's failure to invest in its professional researchers is particularly egregious because throughout the 1990s UC's largest state and federal funding sources have allocated monies for annual compensation increases for research professionals in their grant awards.

In refusing to allocate those funds to professional researcher compensation, the UC Administration has misappropriated and diverted an estimated $16.2 million over the past six years in funds intended for researcher compensation.

We base this estimate on our calculation (discussed in greater detail below) that the University has diverted approximately two percent per year over the past six years in funds that federal or state agencies have awarded for researcher salary increases. Federal and state agencies have awarded three to four percent per year for researcher salary increases, but UC has awarded only one to two percent per year in salary increases. When we multiply this two percent differential times the unit of 3,800 professionals times an average salary of $35,400 over a six-year period, we arrive at an estimated $16.2 million in compensation diversion over this period.[22]

A case in point is the manner in which UC has diverted funds intended for researcher compensation from its multi-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants. NIH is the largest single funding source for UC research (representing more than 40% of federal grant awards to UC). The NIH included a "standard escalation factor"of four percent in each fiscal year from 1991 through 1997 in its multi-year research grants.[23] The "standard escalation factor" provides funding for annual salary increases for research personnel working on the grant. (Employee benefit increases also receive a four percent escalation factor.)

Despite these funded compensation escalators, UC research professionals did not receive the full amount budgeted for salary increases.

Employees in SRA Grade I received only one-fifth (21.1%) of the amount budgeted for salary increases. As the chart below indicates, NIH budgeted a total salary increase of 26.5% over the six-year period. But the UC cost-of-living adjustment for SRA I employees over the same period was 5.6%.[24] Put another way, UC failed to provide SRA I employees with 80% of the grant funds that NIH awarded for compensation increases. SRA I employees represent approximately one-third of the professional researcher unit.

Employees in SRA Grades II through IV (two-thirds of the research professional unit) received less than half (47.5%) of the NIH budgeted compensation increase over the same six-year time period. As discussed earlier, we estimate that UC discretionary "merit" pay increases given to SRA II-IV employees average only 1.9% per year.[25] This represents only 47.5% of the budgeted NIH annual four percent cost escalator.[26]

Where Did the Money Go? (graph)

The gap between the NIH compensation escalator and actual UC salary increases was particularly large in the three-year period from FY 1991-92 through FY 1993-94. During this period of state fiscal distress, UC research staff pay was cut by 3.5%. Yet, over the same period, the University continued to receive funds from multi-year research grants with annual compensation-related cost escalators. (Career employees were later compensated for the 1993-94 pay cut with a contribution to their retirement plans equal to the 3.5% loss. Casual employees, however, were not compensated since they do not have retirement benefits.)

Where Did the Money Go?

  NIH Escalator UC Pay Increase
FY 1991-92 4% No merit, no COLA
FY 1992-93 4% No COLA
FY 1993-94 4% -3.5% pay cut, No COLA, 6-month delay in merit increases
Total 12% -3.5%

Other federal grants, such as those awarded by the National Science Foundation (the second largest federal funder for UC research) typically include annual compensation increases of three to four percent in their multi-year grant awards.

The University also diverts state funds budgeted for research salary increases. Each year after receiving its state budget allocation,UC announces a "control figure" that is a guideline for average discretionary "merit" pay adjustments. As discussed earlier, UC research professional annual "merit" discretionary pay increases average 1.9% per year, or 12% over a six-year period. Yet, in the six years from FY 1991-92 through FY 1996-97, the state control figure for discretionary "merit" pay increases totaled 16.4%.[27] Thus, there is a gap between the amount the state budgeted for pay increases and the amount professional researchers in the SRA II-IV grades actually received.[28]

Absent actual payroll data, data which the University refuses to make public, it is difficult to calculate with absolute certainly the differential between amount that federal and state funding sources have provided for researcher compensation and the actual amount the University spends. Based on the evidence, we conservatively calculate a two percentage point differential. Multiplied across a 3,800 employee unit of research professionals over a six-year period at an average salary of $35,540 per year, we arrive at a conservative estimate of $16.2 million in funds that UC diverted over this period from researcher compensation.[29]

Where Did the Money Go? UC Avg. Merit Increase Trails UC Budgeted Amount

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AIDS Detection Expert at UC Davis Leaves for Better Pay; New Hire Will Require Two-Year Training Period

Stephen Dillard-Telm worked for five years as a SRA I at the UC Davis Primate Center. He studied AIDS infection in monkeys, tested drug interventions and possible vaccines. Stephen developed particular expertise in overseeing and troubleshooting and assays that detected levels of AIDS infection, and among his important contributions to his program was to increase the sensitivity of the AIDS assays by five-to-ten fold.

While Stephen found his work interesting and important, he grew tired of the stagnating wages and the general sense that his contributions were not being valued by the university. In January 1998, he left UC Davis for a position at Bio-Trends, a small firm in West Sacramento, where he does tissue culture, molecular biology, and research and development of veterinary vaccines. Bio-Trends offered Stephen a starting salary of $35,000 (up from $32,000 at Davis). He received an additional 10% raise at his six-month review.

Stephen believes that his departure will slow the pace of work at the Primate Center for some time to come, decreasing the accuracy of the assays, and that it may take as long as two years to bring a new person up to his level of expertise.