Preserving Quality Research at the University of California

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Executive Summary

The University of California (UC) ranks as one of the world's leading scientific research institutions. UC's annual research budget of $1.5 billion supports research aimed at understanding and finding solutions to many of society's most urgent problems, including finding cures for AIDS and cancer, decoding the human genome, developing next generation microchip technology, and improving our ability to predict earthquakes and major weather patterns such as El Nino.

At the heart of the UC research programs are 3,800 research professionals. Under the direction of research faculty, these trained scientists have primary responsibility for day-to-day research operations - developing and carrying out experiments and studies, analyzing data for presentation in scientific journals and at conferences, training students and staff, and managing the research projects. The ability to hire and to retain skilled research professionals is essential to the progress of high-quality research at UC's nine campuses, five medical centers, and three national labs.

UC's scientific research mission is currently imperiled by UC management practices which undermine the ability of UC to retain experienced, talented research professionals.

While federal and state agencies provide adequate funding for annual wage increases, the University systematically diverts a portion of grant awards dedicated for wage increases to other purposes. We estimate that over the past six years, the University has diverted $16.2 million budgeted for professional researcher compensation increases.

As a result, professional researcher salaries have fallen behind. UC research professional salaries suffer a 25% pay gap compared to salaries paid to area equivalents, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics area wage surveys.

Furthermore, UC increasingly hires researchers on a "temporary" basis, failing to provide the commitment of employment security to professional researchers. According to UC personnel records, more than 28% of UC researchers at its four largest campuses and an astounding 64% of professional researchers at the UCLA campus, are hired as at-will casual employees. An administrative loophole allows UC to keep hundreds of long-term research employees under perpetual casual status, denying them the benefits and rewards of career employment.

University policies dictating low pay and increased use of temporary, casual employment have undermined the ability of UC to retain experienced, talented research professionals. The annual turnover rate among UC research professionals has reached an alarming 33%. UC increasingly serves as a training ground for quality researchers on their way to more lucrative and reliable jobs in the private sector, losing the best and brightest that in past years have been key to the basic research mission of the institution.

This markedly high turnover takes its toll upon the continuity and quality of UC research. Testimonial evidence indicates that UC policy towards research professionals increasingly disrupts and raises the cost of performing crucial research. Further disruption of the research process will continue to occur if UC does not take affirmative action to ensure its ability to recruit and to retain quality researchers.

The impact of these policies on the research process concerns not only those involved in the process of funding and carrying out the research, but also on those who depend on the outcome of the research project. UC diversion of wage money with the resultant stagnating salaries and short-term appointments will delay and disrupt scientific breakthroughs that may lead to cures for the medical challenges of our time, advances in our understanding of the physical properties of nature, progress on new technologies, and the expansion of our scientific knowledge.

The path to reform is clear. UC must take immediate and real steps to improve working conditions for research professionals. Such measures must include a serious commitment to bring wages in line with area equivalents as well as an end to the trend toward a more temporary and easily disposable work force.

Federal and state policymakers and private foundations must hold the University accountable to ensure that all grant monies allocated for staffing are actually spent on staffing. As a first step, we recommend that federal and state agencies and private organizations require that the University account for the research personnel line item in all grant awards, with full public disclosure. We further recommend that public and private organizations employ enforcement mechanisms to ensure the appropriate allocation and expenditure of research grant awards.

All Americans are stakeholders in the outcome of UC research. Our tax dollars support UC research based on the premise that the expansion of scientific knowledge will improve the quality of our lives, today and in the future. Therefore, we look to federal and state policymakers, as well as to foundation executives, to ensure public accountability over grant funds. Further, we call on the University to reverse its misguided management policies and, through specific action, reaffirm its commitment to staff retention as the foundation of quality research.


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