CHERI Survey of Start-Up Costs and Laboratory Allocation Rules

Summary of Findings


During the late spring of 2002, the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI) conducted a survey on start-up costs and laboratory allocation rules at research and doctorate universities in the United States. CHERI has plans to sponsor a conference at Cornell in May 2003 on the implications of the growing importance of scientific research for universities.[1] This survey provided background information on two important aspects of universities' costs of scientific research, namely the start-up costs that the institutions incur for new faculty at both the junior and senior levels and the laboratory space allocation rules that the institutions follow. The latter are particularly important as many scientists and engineers are approaching ages when they might consider retiring and the promise of being able to "keep" their labs after retirement may be a powerful tool to encourage them to retire. Such promises, however, may also prove to be extremely costly for universities.

Three to six science and engineering departments were identified at each of the 222 universities classified as research and doctoral universities according to the 1994 Carnegie Foundation Classification of academic institutions. Separate questionnaires were sent to the chairs_q.pdf (PDF, 815 KB) of each department, the deans_q.pdf (PDF, 102 KB) of the departments in which each of these departments was located, and the vice president or vice provost_q.pdf (PDF, 102 KB) for research in each university. In total 1031 chairs, 408 deans and 206 vice presidents or vice provosts received copies of the surveys. The Cornell Computer Assisted Survey Research Team (CAST) administered the surveys. Respondents were given the opportunity to reply by mail, email, telephone, FAX, or the World Wide Web. When the survey was closed at the end of October 2002, we had received usable responses from 572 (55%) of the chairs, 216 (53%) of the deans and 85 (38%) of the vice provosts/vice presidents. Tabulations of the responses to each question on the chairs_t.pdf (PDF, 127 KB), deans_t.pdf (PDF, 121 KB), and vice president or vice provost_t.pdf (PDF, 67 KB) surveys, cross-tabulated by Carnegie Category and whether the institutions were public or private, are available here. In what follows we summarize the major findings from each survey.

At the outset, we should stress that we summarize our findings as if there were three totally separate surveys. We know from our interactions with many institutions that this is not the case. A number of deans offices called us to find out which of their departments had been surveyed so that they could base their answers on the departmental responses. Similarly, a number of vice president/vice provost offices aggregated responses from individual colleges to get their response. Because of this, we suggest (perhaps counter-intuitively to some readers) that the greatest attention be paid to our survey results for the chairs.

Chair Survey Results

The survey of department chairs began by describing things that are usually included in start-up costs (such as construction and renovation of laboratories, materials and equipment, support for laboratory staff, graduate assistants or postdoctoral fellows, summer salaries for faculty members, reduced teaching loads, travel money and unrestricted research funds). We then asked respondents to provide information on the average and/or range of start-up costs that they incur for new assistant professors and for senior faculty members in their field, similar information for the most expensive sub field in their discipline, and on the sources of funding for graduate students.

The second part of the survey asked respondents questions about laboratory allocation rules. They were asked if all new faculty members were guaranteed laboratory space, whether the continuation of usage of such space depended upon the faculty members ability to obtain external research funding and, if laboratory space was dependent upon obtaining funding, the number of years of absence of funding after which faculty members were "asked" to vacate their laboratories. Another set of questions related to the treatment of emeritus professors and whether they were ever allowed to keep their laboratory space and, if so, if they were treated in the same manner as other faculty members. Finally, we asked if all laboratories "belonged" to individual faculty members (or their research groups) or if the department had some shared research laboratories.

At the new assistant professor level, with few exceptions, Carnegie Research I universities provide larger start-up packages than other universities in the sample and private research universities provide larger start-up packages than public universities. When the departments are broken down into four broad fields, physics/astronomy, biology, chemistry and engineering, the average reported start-up package for new assistant professors at private Research I universities varied across fields between $337,000 and $475,000. Estimates of the average high-end (most expensive) assistant professor start-up costs package at these institutions varied across fields from $587,000 to $725,000.

Start-up cost packages for senior faculty members are considerably larger. For example, at the private Research I universities, the average start-up costs for senior faculty members was almost $1 million in chemistry and $750,000 in biology. At the senior level, in two of the fields (physics/astronomy and engineering) the average start-up package was larger at public Research I universities than it was at private Research I universities. This may reflect efforts by a number of publics to move to a higher level by hiring a few key senior faculty members.

Department chairs were asked to tell us the percentage of their start-up cost packages that came from positions being left vacant until funds can be accumulated for that purpose, from endowment income or annual giving designated for these purposes, from state appropriations, from the general operating budget of the department, from the general operating budget of the college, from the general operating budget of the university, or from other sources. On average, they told us that over half of their funding came from the general operating budget of the college or the university. Even chairs at public institutions said that less than 10% of their start-up costs came from state appropriations.

Turning to the laboratory space allocation questions, almost all private universities assign laboratory space to all new assistant professors regardless of whether they have external funding for their research. However, about 11% of the engineering departments at public universities only provide laboratory space to assistant professors with external grants; this rises to almost 20% at the engineering departments in the publics that are not located in Research I universities. Once laboratory space was allocated, over 42% of the respondents said that faculty members were always or usually expected to cover the costs of operations and maintenance of the space through indirect cost recoveries received on external grants, while about 37% said they were never expected to do so. Departments in private and Research I universities were more likely to be in the always or usually group and less likely to be in the never group. Engineering was the field in which faculty members were most often not expected to cover the costs of their laboratories, but even here this occurred at only about one quarter of departments.

When asked if the failure to receive external funding, or the loss of such funding, would lead to the laboratory space allocated to a faculty member being reduced or eliminated after a period of time, 32% of the chairs responded always or usually and 21% responded never. Departments in Research I universities were much more likely to be in the always or usually category and much less likely to be in the never category. On average, those respondents in departments in which faculty were at risk of having their laboratory space reduced or eliminated who gave us a specific number of years said that the "grace period" that faculty members received before such actions took place averaged about 3 to 4 years, with departments in private universities averaging about a year less than those in publics. However, over 80% of the respondents said that the grace period depended upon the needs of the department.

Turning to the treatment of emeritus professors, 32% of the respondents told us the faculty members in their departments who retire and who wish to maintain their laboratory space and remain professionally active are always or usually permitted to maintain their space, while 20 percent said they never were allowed to maintain their space. The first percentage increases to 39% and the second decreases to 10% at departments in Research I universities. When emeritus faculty members are permitted to maintain their laboratory space, over three quarters of the respondents said that they face different allocation rules than their colleagues face.

Finally, we asked department chairs whether laboratories "belonged" to individual faculty members (or their research groups) or whether their department had some shared laboratories. Only about 30% said that there were no shared laboratories in their departments. However, while 15% of the engineering chairs said they had no shared labs, 41% of the biology chairs told us that all of their departments labs belonged to individual faculty members.

Dean Survey Results

The survey of deans began by asking for an estimate of the magnitude of the total start-up costs that their college incurred during the most recent year for which they had data. The mean across all of the respondents was $1.5 million, but this varied from under $100,000 to $7 million. Mean expenditures varied between Research I and other universities, but the mean was very similar within each category between public and private institutions. Given that the public institutions are larger than the privates, this is consistent with the implications of the chairs survey that private institutions spend more per faculty member than the publics do.

Deans were then asked the magnitude of the start-up cost package that their college provides for the typical new assistant professor in the colleges most expensive department. The mean estimates ranged from a low of $183,382 at public non-Research I institutions to $456,167 at private Research I institutions. These numbers were quite similar to the comparable numbers reported by the chairs. When asked which the most expensive department was in terms of start-up costs for new assistant professors, deans of arts and science colleges most often reported that chemistry and biochemistry were the most expensive, while deans of schools of engineering reported that chemical engineering was their most expensive department.

The deans' estimates of the dollar magnitudes of the start-up costs that their college provided for senior faculty members in the college's most expensive department ranged from a mean of $314,753 at public non-Research I universities to $921,477 at private Research I universities. However, some deans report start-up cost packages for senior faculty members that total $3.5 million. Deans of arts and sciences most often report that their most expensive start-up packages were for senior chemists, while deans of engineering most often reply that their most expensive start-up packages were for chemical engineers.

When asked where their colleges find the funds for start-up costs, deans echoed the chairs. On average, the largest sources of funds were the general budgets of the college and university, with 45% of start-up cost funds coming from these sources. Deans claimed that of the remaining 55%, 20% of the funds came from sources other than keeping positions vacant, endowments and gifts, state appropriations and operating budgets of departments and typically indicated in notes to their answers that the other sources were indirect cost recoveries. Unless new faculty members bring grants with them, most start-up costs cannot be included in the indirect cost base. So what the deans really mean here is that the university incurs expenses from its general budget for research administration and infrastructure and when these costs are reimbursed through the indirect cost pool, this permits the university to spend funds from its own general budget on start-up costs. Interestingly, public institutions are almost twice as likely as private institutions to generate start-up costs from keeping faculty positions vacant. Hence, start-up costs appear to adversely influence the teaching program of public universities more than they do the teaching program of private universities.

Turning to the questions on laboratory space allocation decisions, less than 5% of the respondents say that new assistant professors are assigned laboratory space only if they have external grants to support the space. About 25% say that they never expect faculty members to cover the costs of operating and maintaining laboratory space through indirect cost recoveries on external grants, with the percentage being somewhat higher for colleges of arts and science and somewhat lower for colleges of engineering. However, about 60% say that if a faculty member does not receive external funding to support his or her laboratory, or loses external funding, the space allocated to the faculty member is usually or sometimes reduced or eliminated after a period of time; the percentage of deans who say this is higher for engineering colleges but lower for arts and science colleges. Most respondents say that the length of this period depends upon the department but then go on to tell us that the mean time is usually 3 to 4 years, consistent with the departmental reports.

Deans report better treatment of emeritus professors than the departments did. About 60% of the deans report that retired faculty members who wish to maintain their laboratory space and remain professionally active are permitted to do so, while only 11 percent report that they are never permitted to do so. About half of the deans told us that emeritus professors face different allocation rules for laboratory space than their active faculty colleagues face. Finally deans report a larger share of shared laboratories than their department chairs do in both engineering and arts and sciences.

Vice President/Vice Provost for Research Survey

The response rate to the vice president/vice provost for research survey was disappointingly low 38%. Moreover the response rate was lower for private universities than public universities and was lowest for private Research I universities. Because of this, one should take the summaries of the responses to this survey with a large grain of salt.

The respondents report a total dollar magnitude of start-up costs incurred at all levels in their university that range from $20,000 to $22 million dollars a year.[2] The mean institutional total start-up cost across the 77 institutions that reported was $4.3 million. While public Research I and private Research I institutions reported mean total start-up costs of $8.0 million and $7.4 million respectively, the comparable figures for the other public and private universities was $2.3 million and $1.1 million respectively.

We asked the vice provosts and vice presidents what the dollar magnitude was of the start-up costs that the university provides for the typical new assistant professor in the universities most expensive field. The mean across all institutions was $301,000, with the figure being highest for public Research I universities ($404,000) and lowest for private non-Research I institutions ($199,167). The fact that the reported mean for private Research I institutions was less than that for public research I institutions (in contrast to the department chair and dean surveys) suggests that the non respondents from the private Research I institutions may have come disproportionately from the higher start-up cost universities. Most frequently the vice presidents/vice provosts reported that the most expensive department (in terms of start-up costs per faculty member) was Chemistry, followed by Biology and then Electrical, Chemical, and Mechanical Engineering.

Finally, we asked the vice presidents/vice provosts what the dollar magnitude of the start-up costs that they incurred for senior faculty in their most expensive field was. The mean response was $761,443 and the mean ranged from $1,353,439 at private Research I universities to $379,000 at other private universities.

[1] These central administration responses may include start-up costs incurred by medical colleges associated with the university. Our department chair and dean surveys specifically excluded medical colleges.

[2] The program for that conference, Science and the University, is available here. As papers for the conference are submitted, they will be available to be downloaded from this site.