Monday, January 11, 2010

ORNL-UT cooperation to be strengthened..

....according to an announcement by Gov. Bredesen, with 200 new faculty positions at UT staffed by researchers at the lab, and a doubling of the number of doctoral degrees awarded at the university. This is just what both institutions need, but for best effect will require overcoming some obstacles.

One of these is that there is a problem at ORNL in housing undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs as they do not 'carry off' much overhead. Thus, according to the 'full cost recovery' model by which ORNL operates, these young researchers become financial liabilities for ORNL, which must provide office space, heating, basic facilities etc out of the organisational burden (overhead), even if they arrive with salaries from elsewhere. This problem could be remedied at least in part by expanding the space allocated on the ORNL campus to the UT/ORNL Joint Institutes, by re-assigning parts of existing buildings, if this is legally conceivable. My perception (maybe wrong?) is that the Joint Institutes have so far been largely technology platforms e.g., for the Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) systems biology apparatus and the UT/ORNL NSF Kraken supercomputer. Although BESC and Kraken have been very successful for both UT and ORNL, (and I am involved with both myself) the dedication of the Joint Institutes to facilities rather than UT:ORNL grassroots research cooperation leaves a vacuum. So basically what I am saying is that if a student, postdoc or visitor wants to come and work with an ORNL staff member or UT faculty member at ORNL (and has their salary already paid from some external source) then ORNL needs to have a mechanism in place to welcome these people with space, offices and open arms, without needing to worry about extra costs, and whatever the subject they work on: this will be cost effective for ORNL in the long run as it will produce lots of cheap, high-profile science that can be used to write money-winning grants in the future.

Secondly, if ORNL staff scientists are to become UT faculty then they need to teach - maybe not a lot, but some at least - and most of the staff scientists I know would be happy to do this. This would help staff UT classrooms in the coming budget crunch, but there would have to be a mechanism in place to pay them. Given the relatively high salaries and astronomical overheads applied at ORNL the hourly rate of an average staff scientist is likely to be much higher than UT could afford. Hence, the corresponding budget strain may have to be absorbed by the funding agencies currently paying the staff scientist salaries. How they could do that is a good question, but I believe it is in the interests of the agencies themselves (DOE, NIH, NSF, etc) that their funded researchers keep their minds broadened and in contact with bright students by the noble endeavour of teaching. It's certainly in the interests of both ORNL and UT to have hordes of bright, motivated graduate students populating the offices and corridors at Oak Ridge at midnight...

1 comment:

  1. I'm all for it, and I suppose current UT faculty would get Lab's salaries as well, and the junior ones wouldn't need to worry about getting tenure ;-). Actually let's give all UT & ORNL faculty joint appointments !!