Thank you, and good morning! On behalf of Brown University, I am delighted to be here with fellow members of the research ecosystem, and honored to be speaking at the NORDP annual conference!
I already feel a connection to this group. Over the course of my career, I have benefited tremendously from the assistance and guidance of research development professionals. But there’s another reason, too: the ties between Brown and National Organization for Research Development Professionals.
Many of you likely know that Anne Windham, a presenter here and associate dean of the faculty at Brown, is a founding member of NORDP. Our director of research development, Amy Carroll, is a former president of the NORDP Northeast subgroup. And, along with Edel Minogue in our research office, Amy assumed leadership roles in planning this year’s conference!
Now, I understand that the conference is the largest in NORDP’s 11-year history, and the first time it has ever sold out. This could have something to do with Providence, our wonderful host city. More likely, though, is that it has something to do with where you have taken research development.
And this morning, I’d like to keep the spotlight on your work, and the value of research development at institutions of higher education.
Often, we have to look backward to look forward.
So let me tell you about the first time I put together a National Institutes of Health grant application as a new investigator at Princeton, years ago.
It was a complicated proposal. It involved multiple institutions, numerous subcontracts, human subjects, and the need for a certificate of confidentiality. I was, to be blunt, taken aback by the many rules, forms and protocols related to submitting the grant application. (And what was COEUS, anyway?!)
Like many new investigators who didn’t know any better, I thought that the research office was making up all of the seemingly-arcane rules.
It wasn’t until someone in the research office sat down with me and said “Look, I can see that you’re frustrated. But we don’t make up the rules that go with grant submission—the federal government does. And we’re here to help you do what you want to do.” And so, you can bet that in the years that followed, I worked hard on my diplomacy and communication skills and cultivated a very collegial relationship with staff in the research office!
Back then, research development was different, not as complex. Today, the field continues to professionalize and is resetting the bar for how to advance research at colleges and universities.
And so, fast forward from that time long ago at Princeton to a time at Brown last October.
We were privileged to welcome to campus U.S. Senator Jack Reed and the director of the Defense Advanced Projects Agency, a major funder of national security research. Our Office of Research Development staff undertook a broad scope of activities in preparation for our visitors.
They identified 16 faculty research projects to showcase. They met individually with each faculty member and coached them on how to deliver a quick presentation in language easily understood by non-scientists. They prepared background materials for each presentation. They arranged the logistics of efficiently moving around campus to four different buildings to highlight Brown’s unique strengths in areas of interest to DARPA. And they organized a lunch with the Provost and me.
The outcome? Well, thanks to the hard work of our research development folks, Brown did receive a DARPA grant. And we anticipate more positive outcomes in the coming years.
I offer this as an example of how research development is evolving into a versatile, deliberate, detail-oriented practice that can transform institutional approaches to securing research funding.
Partly, this is a response to shifts and challenges in the funding environment. First, federal research budgets – at the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal agencies – are not growing. Competition for grant funds is keener. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
Second, compliance demands have become more intensive over time, and some of the issues around international research collaborations — especially with China, but also other countries — are taking up a lot of time and energy.
And third, political figures continue to voice skepticism about higher education and cast doubt on science and evidence-based scholarship. This anti-intellectual narrative has clouded public support for federally-funded research somewhat.
Perhaps the most consequential shift, though, is a focus on multidisciplinary convergence. Federal agencies are funding more collaborative, big-team, cross-institution work around the view that interdisciplinary research is where the most compelling and exciting discoveries are emerging.
For example, the NSF notes that the grand challenges of today – protecting human health; understanding the food, energy, water nexus; exploring the universe at all scales – will not be solved by one discipline alone. They require convergence: the merging of ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge to stimulate innovation and discovery.
The NEH Research and Development Program “recognizes that finding solutions to complex problems often requires forming interdisciplinary project teams, bringing together participants with expertise in the humanities; in preservation; and in information, computer and natural science.”
And funding success at NIH typically begins with a multidisciplinary premise, to attack disease, illuminate public health challenges, or test innovative health care technologies.
In this new normal – an uncertain, more competitive research funding environment, and an expanded focus on collaborative approaches to solving complex challenges – institutions are asking new questions: Does this align with our mission? Where are the strategic opportunities? How do we develop the capacity to be successful?
Research development is helping them answer these questions. What began as an informal effort to build a peer community has evolved into a thriving, vital field. The scope of your work is as interesting and creative as ever. And your hybrid skillset is the perfect asset for navigating the new normal.
I deeply appreciate the work that you do. And that’s why I believe that research development is a strategic imperative for higher education. This morning, I will offer three perspectives on why.
The Mission Perspective
First, improving the research enterprise is critical to our missions.
Our institutions are bound by a shared commitment to the production of knowledge that has a meaningful impact on our lives and in the world. And for decades, American higher education has earned a global reputation for research that has spurred an incredible range of groundbreaking discoveries, and driven economic and social progress.
A 2016 article in The Atlantic on the history of the American research university noted a sampling that included nanotechnology, scientific agriculture, Viagra, the Richter Scale, the Heimlich maneuver, antibiotics, and, of particular interest to me as an economist, the concept of congestion pricing.
The evolution of research development practice is an accelerator that keeps colleges and universities at the leading edge of knowledge production, and on course to fulfill their missions.
I hope that for you—as scholars and research development professionals—it is profoundly gratifying to come to work and contribute to the advancement of cutting-edge research.
And the impact you are having is mission-level, too. You help teams secure awards for research that addresses the global issues of our time – like climate change and the spread of infectious disease – and has the potential to change lives. And you create learning communities and networks that live on.
That is a mission all of us should want to be a part of.
The Institutional Leadership Perspective
Second, from an institutional leadership standpoint, the current funding environment compels colleges and universities to commit strategic resources to research development, especially at a time when research offices are being asked to do more with less.
One NORDP member described academia’s need for research development expertise as a need for “strategic guidance and managed involvement” that can invigorate research programs.
In other words, as a need for operational excellence. And the professionalization of research development is exactly that – a new, and strategic, arena for operational excellence.
Whether you are called academic administrators, staff scientists, research project managers, or those people who help us land grants, the work you do involves mastering a skillset that is varied and valuable to higher education institutions.
On a given call for proposals, you coordinate topical input, conceptualize budget preparation, develop agreements on data use and sharing, oversee collection of bio-sketches and conflict of interest forms, cultivate and manage relationships with external partners through the bureaucracy at each of their institutions, and so much more.
In doing so, you not only enhance the quality of funding submissions; you also help build reputation. It helps our institutions shape academic and research narratives as well as refine the pitch for institutional distinction. You give us the lexicon for describing the significance and potential consequences of research inquiries, and pitching research project proposals to a range of audiences.
A strong research development capability allows institutions to keep thinking big. When we talk about our research ambitions having impact – that we hope to crack the code on Alzheimer’s Disease, or pioneer new AI applications, or alleviate global economic inequality – we have to recognize the need for a strong research research development capability. And investment in research infrastructure that improves prospects for successful research outcomes is crucial to success.
And in similar fashion, strength in research development can help drive local cross-sector collaborations around shared priorities. We’ve all seen universities in places like Palo Alto, Research Triangle, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh become anchor partners with local government and business, to strengthen emerging knowledge-economy hubs for tech and life sciences.
That has been the case for Brown as well. Our research development efforts have been instrumental in shaping an entrepreneurial and research-intensive ecosystem in Providence that supports Brown’s ambitions in translational medical research. And our “Brown and the Innovation Economy” plan extends this to a new Innovation Campus that will be a magnet for startups, and spark interactions between entrepreneurs, industry, academic researchers and students.
And of course, it opens up a broader universe of funding opportunities to our faculty.
The Culture Perspective
And finally, I want to talk about the need for universities to embrace a culture of collaboration and innovation—and the critical role of your offices in fostering that culture.
One of the most valuable and interesting roles you play is that of matchmaker/translator between disciplines – I believe it is sometimes referred to as ‘brokerage’ in your profession. With the funding environment organized in the way it is, multidisciplinary team collaborations are essential. But getting disparate groups of people to collaborate and innovate can be challenging.
Finding a common language, complementary methods, and even a shared understanding of the research problem is a nuanced, higher-order competence. It’s like you are anthropologists brokering intellectual cultures.
And the cross-institution, cross-discipline research teams you assemble are essential to strengthening an academic culture of collaboration.
In addition, entrepreneurial thinking is an increasingly important cultural attribute in academia. Due to an increasingly competitive landscape and limited resources, many research development offices have to think differently about their work. They have to be more creative in sleuthing out funding sources and communicating opportunities to clusters of research faculty, deepening a culture of collaboration.
This cultural change can lead to unique partnerships.
For example, Semiconductor Research Corp recently chose a team of researchers from Binghamton and Purdue University – which have collaborated previously and which have complementary expertise and labs – to lead a new multimillion-dollar Center for Heterogeneous Integration Research in Packaging, or CHIRP. The center will help define the future of electronics packaging in the United States and globally for the next decade.
MIT and IBM are in the early part of a new collaboration where IBM has agreed to make a 10-year, $240 million investment to create a new AI Lab. The lab is carrying out fundamental artificial intelligence research and seeking to propel scientific breakthroughs that unlock the potential of AI.
Here at Brown, the research office teamed up with Brown’s Data Science Initiative and several other campus groups in a Big Data Networking Event last spring. More than 50 participants – faculty “data generators” and “data analyzers” who had not met before – had a chance to talk briefly with each other – a sort of speed-dating for potential collaborators. Already, the event has led to the funding of two research projects, one on homelessness and another on stroke recovery.
As more and more faculty see the many ways research development can expand funding prospects or improve the competitiveness and overall quality of large-scale federal grant applications, its value becomes clearer.
And when that happens, our research development staff hear faculty members say things like this, from our Dean of Engineering: “I wanted to thank you tremendously for what an important collaborator and colleague you have been for us. We greatly appreciate all of your work, advice, and support as we build up our research endeavors here in the [School of Engineering].”
Close and Appreciation
What all of this comes down to is, how can our institutions become more competitive and build capacity in capturing research funding? Can we do so in ways that honor and further our missions? And, better still, can we get there by innovating and advancing knowledge?
The growing robustness and strategic value of research development practice, I think, offers very promising answers to these questions.
While it may have been a “back office” function at one time, I see research development today as a new strategic imperative in higher education – for the success of individual faculty researchers, colleges and universities, and the nation’s research enterprise.
Going forward, your skillset, which combines advanced technical expertise, a talent for project management, an operations mindset, and a good measure of political and communications savvy, will continue to position higher education institutions to succeed in securing research funding.
I suspect that there was a time in your lives as research development professionals, that you ran up against skeptical faculty who didn’t quite understand what research development was. I would also suspect that many of you have at a later point been on the receiving end of a faculty member saying “Now I get what you all do. Thank you!”
You are Strategists. Educators. Liaisons. Communicators. Innovators. Entrepreneurs. And universities (and leadership) appreciate your work more than you know.
Thank you all so much for your kind attention and have a productive conference!
I am happy to take a few questions.