Public schools losing tug-of-war for top researchers

UC San Diego professors Herbert Levine, Jose Onuchic, and Peter Wolynes are leaving for Rice University in Houston. (McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)

The University of California at San Diego faced a losing battle recently when it tried to hang on to three star scientists being wooed by Rice University for cutting-edge cancer research.

The recruiting package from the private Houston university included 40-percent pay raises, new labs, and a healthy flow of research money from a Texas state bond fund. But another factor, unrelated to Rice, helped close the deal: The professors’ sense that declining state funding for the University of California made it a good time to pack their bags.

“What’s happening now is that the UC and most of the public schools are getting in a much weaker position to play this game,” said physicist Jose Onuchic, who has taught at UC San Diego for 22 years but will head to Texas this month, along with fellow physicist Herbert Levine and biochemist Peter Wolynes.

The imminent departures of the three—all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences—has unsettled leaders of the UC system. Officials say a worsening UC budget picture is emboldening other schools, particularly top private institutions, to recruit UC faculty and might prompt other professors to leave as well.

“It’s like piranha. They sense blood in the water,” Gene Lucas, UC Santa Barbara’s executive vice chancellor, said of the recruiting institutions, which increasingly include overseas universities.

UC officials say that, so far, they have managed to fend off most raids in a system that employs about 18,000 faculty members.

But matching the growing number of outside offers comes at a cost, using funds that could help fill vacancies and hire additional professors. And when they don’t succeed, grant money often moves with the departing researcher, along with a dose of academic prestige.