All in theory

All in theory

Science Initiative built to address longstanding issues; 18 months laters, faculty concerned with progress

Published on October 9, 2014

When the Columbia Science Initiative launched in April 2013, it seemed poised to solve the funding woes that had plagued Columbia’s natural science departments for years.

The initiative is intended to fund the creation of three academic institutes and three research fellowship programs, new faculty recruitments, the construction of a Theory Center in Pupin Hall, renovations of existing buildings, and continued internal work in the Northwest Corner Building.

The initiative was formed as a solution for longstanding problems of faculty retention, outdated space, and limited research and academic programming for students.

But now, 18 months since the initiative launched, fundraising has yet to begin in any significant capacity, according to Amber Miller, the dean of sciences for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Though the initiative designates the next five to 10 years for fundraising and implementation, many of the challenges in the natural sciences come with a ticking clock, physics professor Bill Zajc said.

“We are at a make-or-break point,” Zajc, the former chair of the physics department, said. “We can’t kick the can down the road for another 10 years—if we do, Columbia ceases to be a player in science.”

Building the Science Initiative

Most of the delay in fundraising for the Science Initiative, which Miller was hired to oversee, has been the result of an effort—widely supported among faculty—to solicit faculty input and build the initiative from the bottom up.

“We can’t kick the can down the road for another 10 years—if we do, Columbia ceases to be a player in science.”

—Bill Zajc, physics professor and former physics dept. chair

Before the creation of Miller’s office in April 2011, there was no single administrator responsible for the natural sciences within the Arts and Sciences. While concerns ranging from crumbling infrastructure and space constraints to faculty retention are nothing new, faculty said the University was ill-equipped to consolidate and address them before Miller came onboard.

In spring 2012, Miller, the nine natural science department chairs, and faculty members began discussions to identify the main priorities within each department, which later informed the multiple drafts of the initiative.

Since then, the Science Initiative has officially launched and a new website has gone live. On Oct. 1, faculty and administrators gathered in Low Library for a reception that celebrated and reported on the initiative’s first 18 months and charted the course of the next five years.

All new efforts fall under one or more of the six themes of the initiative: Molecular Structures, Life, Origins, Mind Brain Behavior, Data Sciences, and Earth.

The Executive Summary of the Science Initiative, published on the initiative’s website this year, said the objectives of the initiative are to “sustain excellent research and to be a magnet for top science faculty, researchers, and students throughout the world,” to “increase the role research plays in educating undergraduate students and to increase research opportunities for graduate students,” and to “contribute solutions to today’s problems through the dissemination and application of new discoveries.”

A slow start

According to the Executive Summary, the Science Initiative will be implemented in three phases over the next 10 years. The first phase will provide seed funding for three new institutes and for administrators to make targeted hires in several departments. The second and third phases will focus on fundraising to meet the initiative’s academic goals.

Though the plans have been finalized, the fundraising push has yet to begin.

“Not zero, but so far the fundraising has been small,” Miller said.

Miller said her office is currently assembling an advisory board to oversee the fundraising process. According to the Executive Summary, the board—comprised of alumni and donors of the University—will meet annually, and, by 2023, will have the capacity to effectively support science fundraising priorities.

Select faculty members have also been meeting with University President Lee Bollinger to fill him in on the details of the initiative so he can effectively solicit gifts.

While faculty say they are satisfied with their sense of involvement throughout the planning process, they are concerned about slow progress on fundraising.

“I think progress has been legitimately slow. They have made all the right announcements, but not much has actually happened yet,” Andrew Millis, who chaired the physics department from 2006 to 2009, said.

“Fundraising does take time—I’m not particularly surprised that nothing has happened yet—but I think there is very little, there is little accomplishment,” Millis said. “I expect there will be over the next couple of years, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

While the Science Initiative emphasizes flashier new efforts such as the Mind Brain Behavior Institute, faculty said that funding for the basics such as renovations and faculty retention, is crucial—but also the most difficult to secure.

Bollinger, however, sees the two goals as related.

“As I say, if you have things that are very exciting to a donor community, you will end up also getting more for basic things that are not so attractive to major donations,” Bollinger said in an interview last week.

Still, faculty said the new efforts are unsustainable—and often can’t even be launched—without continuing investment in the departments’ basic infrastructure.

While the Science Initiative certainly addresses some of these more basic needs like building renovations and expansions, Bollinger said that funding for such needs will also come from existing University funds.

“Initiatives are good—they’re very, very important, etc.—but the basic things that we do are critical,” Bollinger said. “You need to invest money of the institution in those things that are basic, and we have done that to an extent. We can give lots of examples.”

Bollinger pointed to the Northwest Corner Building as an example of an internally funded effort.

“Nobody should have the impression that all the effort is on initiatives and not on basics—it’s just not the case,” he added.

Zajc still believes that basic needs can be attractive to donors.

“You can say that, ‘Well, donors only want to give to splashy things, interdisciplinary science,’ but you can see it in our peers—our peers are doing things like gut renovations of buildings,” Zajc said. “They’ve identified the funds, and it’s up to the development office and the administration to identify a way to package this such that it is attractive to donors.”

Zajc said that at a Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting in May, Bollinger said he was just as committed to fundraising for the Arts and Sciences and the Science Initiative as he was to fundraising for Personalized Medicine and other larger initiatives.

“Nobody should have the impression that all the effort is on initiatives and not on basics—it’s just not the case.”

—Lee Bollinger, University president

“I hope that we do have access to donors, just in the same way and with the considerable power of the president behind the fundraising in the same way that it is—has been—with Mind Brain Behavior and now is in Personalized Medicine,” Zajc said.

Bollinger also acknowledged the concern about the Arts and Sciences fundraising initiative potentially competing for donations with other existing initiatives, but believes the benefits greatly outweigh any costs.

“That is definitely a criticism, and my argument is it is the responsibility of a great university to pursue very promising areas of new knowledge,” Bollinger said. “There are much wider kinds of benefits that come to all parts of the University as a result of these initiatives, and sometimes it’s specific in the sense that Mind Brain Behavior will result in fundraising that benefits the development of data science or chemistry or psychology.”

Although the strategic plan for the initiative lays out a 10-year vision, the fundraising goal has not yet been finalized or made public. Miller is also unsure about how much achieving the initiative’s goals will actually cost.

“It really depends on how other things come together. A lot of it has to do with how the hiring comes together, what kinds of things we end up raising money for versus paying for internally,” Miller said.

Faculty woes

Zajc said that while departments across the sciences are facing similar challenges, many of these concerns have manifested themselves particularly seriously in the physics department as a result of decades of neglect by the central administration.

“I recently had an opportunity to go back at least 30 years, probably 40 years, and found a variety of instances in which the administrations from the past failed to follow through on promises to the physics department,” Zajc said. “And I’m being careful to emphasize that these predate President Bollinger, so he certainly inherited a bad situation with the physics department and its infrastructure.”

One of the primary issues in the physics department is retaining top staff members. One of the more notable departures occurred when Nobel laureate and applied physics professor Horst Störmer—who did not return a request for comment—announced his retirement from Columbia in 2009, and left in 2011. The search for his replacement was delayed for a number of years, Zajc said.

A year later, in 2012, physics professor Tsung-Dao Lee, another Nobel laureate, retired after nearly six decades at Columbia, and again no immediate replacement was hired. In 2014, physics professor Philip Kim left the department for Harvard. Physics professor Tony Heinz will be leaving for Stanford this coming spring, Zajc and Millis confirmed.

Zajc said that competitive salaries are an important piece in attracting and retaining top faculty, but faculty are also drawn to institutions by top-of-the-line facilities and research opportunities—both of which the Science Initiative is designed to address, partially for this purpose.

When asked about the central administration’s response to problems in the physics department in recent years, Kim said in an email that support has been sparse.

“Central Administration put some supports in the past, but it has been never comparable to the competing peers institutes,” Kim said.

Though Kim said his decision to leave Columbia for Harvard was ultimately motivated by personal reasons, he noted that Harvard offers better research facilities than Columbia.

“Physics at Columbia once was one of the top physics departments in the world. That fame has gone now, we are probably about ranked 10th overall,” Kim said. “University support seems to be minimal, with really limited number of staff, supporting facilities, in particular shared facilities such as machine shop, electric shop, helium recovery, and micro(nano) fabrication and characterization facilities, which are rather standard in other peer institutes.”

Kim’s and Heinz’s departures mark a shift in the attitude toward hiring and retention problems in physics, and have led to a renewed commitment to the department’s reputation, according to Zajc.

“That was perhaps the most negative perception from the outside of Columbia, and it was affecting our rankings,” Zajc said. “The outside community saw major departures from the department and no effort to replace the people who were leaving, and in many cases that was interpreted as a lack of commitment to driving fields, entire fields of physics.”

“Physics at Columbia once was one of the top physics departments in the world. That fame has gone now, we are probably about ranked 10th overall.”

—Philip Kim, former Columbia physics professor

But three years after Störmer’s departure, the department has hired one new professor and is in contract negotiations with another to fill the void.

Cory Dean, who has his own condensed physics laboratory, left City College to join Columbia’s physics department this summer. Millis said the department is in the final stage of contract negotiations with Dimitri Basov—whom Millis called “a recognized superstar”—from the University of California, San Diego.

Zajc said that the Science Initiative—once the fundraising push begins—could amp up the department’s recruitment efforts.

“We are now trying to recruit all across sciences, and if the Science Initiative goes forward at a relatively rapid pace, we know that we can increase our recruiting efforts and turn around what I hope was a low point from a few years ago,” Zajc said.

Issues with faculty retention and new hires aren’t limited to the physics department, however. Peter Kelemen, the chair of the department of earth and environmental sciences, said that “other departments have been having a lot of trouble with high-profile retention and recruitment.”

“The perception is that that’s probably due to the same kind of issues, but I think also the cost of infrastructure for science is going up everywhere,” Kelemen said.

Hires Departures Science Department

Tight space

Fundraising is key, faculty say, for solving space issues, particularly within the physics department. Pupin Physics Laboratories, which was finished in 1927, has been named a National Historic Landmark for housing experiments relating to splitting the atom during the Manhattan Project era.

But it’s also falling apart, Zajc said. He noted that in 2005 an external committee found that “Pupin Laboratories does not make the grade either as a research or as a teaching platform. The condition of the facilities is presently so poor that they will serve to limit the Department’s ability to attract the most desirable students and faculty alike, and retain faculty.”

“Columbia is well behind many of its peers in creating shared facilities to provide its scientists with these necessary services.”

—Columbia University Accreditation Self Study, 2011

A 2007 report by the University Senate’s physical development committee said that the Academic Review Committee, which periodically reviews departments, centers, and institutes within Arts and Sciences, concluded in a March 2002 report that “the future of Columbia’s natural science will require a large financial investment, especially for new and renovated space, but also for recruitment of first-rate scientists.”

The Report of the Working Group on Science Education, compiled by the Task Force on Undergraduate Education in 2008, also called for investment in existing facilities. “To support undergraduate research, and our research mission generally, we need to invest heavily in renovations for the science research space on the Morningside campus.”

The need for building renovations was reiterated in a 2011 accreditation self study done by the University, which references recommendations from a 2002 ARC review of the natural sciences.

According to the study, “Existing buildings on the Morningside campus still require extensive costly renovations to make them scientifically current and additional facilities will be needed for further expansion … Columbia is well behind many of its peers in creating shared facilities to provide its scientists with these necessary services.”

After a two-year delay, ongoing renovations to Pupin are slated for completion in 2015. The renovations include a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing vertical infrastructure upgrade, renovations on the exterior copper cornice, and partial construction of a new Theory Center, which will include lab space and tech innovations to encourage collaborative research among students and faculty.

Though the part of the Theory Center being constructed now will only occupy approximately a third of the eighth and ninth floors of Pupin, the goal is to expand the center to the entirety of both floors. The partial renovation is costing the Arts and Sciences approximately $4.5 million, according to Zajc, and funds have yet to be identified for the rest of the center. Miller said she hopes funds will be raised for the other two-thirds before the end of construction of the space.

Millis said that renovations to Pupin are challenging because of the building’s primitive conditions.

“When you’re starting from a poor-quality infrastructure, doing something proper takes a lot of money, and that means you can do less of it,” Millis said. “So those are the big challenges, antiquated infrastructure making it difficult and expensive to have modern laboratory space.”

Significant investment in this space, however, is exactly what earlier reports called for over the last several years.

“For a theoretical physics program to be one of the best in the nation, you really need a space like that. That’s what the competitors are building these days,” Miller added.

Pupin Hall is currently undergoing three renovation projects, including the construction of a Theory Center for the physics department, which are slated to be completed by 2015. (Ethan Wu / Senior Staff Photographer)

Putting it together

According to Jack Snyder, former chair of the University’s Policy and Planning Committee, problems in the natural sciences, particularly physics, alerted the PPC to the larger funding issues throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“So the PPC first got seized with the issue of the Arts and Sciences financial difficulties in a big way in spring 2013 when we came to understand some of the severe difficulties facing the physics department,” Snyder said.

Snyder said that the PPC examined the budgetary difficulties involved in the hiring pool, the retention pool, funding for renovations, and funding for the new science building—before coming up with a plan for a fundraising initiative for the Arts and Sciences as a whole.

In a letter to Bollinger last May after the Arts and Sciences faculty meeting, members of the PPC and every Arts and Sciences department chair said that they “are ready and willing to fully support efforts to raise additional funds for the Arts and Sciences, but due to the accumulation of problems that currently face us, we will require budgetary assistance to sustain our basic operations until fundraising starts taking effect. No one will want to donate to unstable academic programs whose prestige is endangered by neglect.”

The result of that meeting was the creation of a large Arts and Sciences fundraising initiative to address broad faculty concerns about financial constraints within Arts and Sciences. That initiative is still in its early stages of planning.

Last week, Bollinger told Spectator that the large Arts and Sciences initiative will build around the Science Initiative, as well as create separate initiatives for the social sciences and the humanities—the two other divisions of the Arts and Sciences.

Administrators are hoping that the creation of the social sciences dean and humanities dean positions in July 2014, which were filled by Alondra Nelson and Sharon Marcus, respectively, will bring the same consolidated leadership that Miller brought to the Science Initiative.

“We can no longer afford to allow our infrastructure and programs to atrophy in this way.”

—Faculty of Arts and Sciences letter to Bollinger

“The idea of putting the whole thing together is still to be done, and I think very important to do,” Bollinger said. “So the way they’re proceeding in Arts and Sciences is ‘Let’s first have each division and then try to look at it collectively.’”

As evidenced by the May letter to Bollinger, however, faculty are clearly concerned about how and when these initiatives will actually address their concerns.

“Unfortunately, these obligations cannot be fulfilled given present levels of support. The most visible manifestation of this problem is the current crisis in the natural sciences, but its effects are felt everywhere,” the letter said. “We can no longer afford to allow our infrastructure and programs to atrophy in this way.”

Correction: The graphic of physics department hires and departures incorrectly referred to Dimitri Basov as a Nobel laureate, but he is not. Spectator regrets the error.

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