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Core Strength: The Value of Institutional Support

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By Frances Lawrenz

Earlier this week, Vice President for Research, Brian Herman, led a Campus Conversation to talk about the many ways the OVPR serves as both a catalyst and support system for research at the University of Minnesota.

In the past five years, OVPR has invested $108M in research funding across the university’s colleges and campuses. That’s a little more than $20M a year that goes directly to ensure that our scholars and innovators have the opportunity to advance knowledge in their fields, conduct critical, basic research and explore promising new ideas. These seed funds are also designed to leverage other investments and promote collaborations with business and industry partners.

As both a faculty member in the College of Education and Human Development and Associate VP for Research, I see firsthand the impact this has on expanding, strengthening and enriching our research community. The U of M is nationally known for the breadth and depth of its research programs, for its strong research collaborations and for its integration of research into undergraduate and graduate curricula. While you may know that the pacemaker, the Honeycrisp apple and the AIDS drug Ziagen were all invented by U of M faculty, you may not know that the U is also ranked number one in the nation in both industrial/organizational psychology and developmental psychology and is in the top ten for several disciplines, including history, creative writing, chemical engineering and special education.

Many of the programs we offer through OVPR support new ideas that might not otherwise have the chance to be explored. The Grant-in-Aid program, which has provided $15M in awards to 560 projects over the past five years, supports a broad range of independent research, scholarly and artistic activities of faculty, including grants for research in fields with limited external support, assistant professors establishing new research programs and bridge funding to support critical research projects during lapses in external funding. While the individual grants are relatively small (approximately $25K per award) this program is unique in its support of a wide range of projects across all disciplines and fields.

The Research Infrastructure Reinvestment program invests in research facilities and equipment to ensure that our research infrastructure remains robust, state-of-the-art and poised to support groundbreaking discoveries. Over the past five years, the OVPR has invested more than $30M for 22 projects.

For example, a recent project will help the university to develop capacity in mass cytometry, a cutting-edge technology that allows for rapid analysis of individual cells at various stages of development. Mass cytometry is used in medical fields to test drugs and other treatments for life threatening diseases such as cancer and other chronic health conditions. Investments in mass cytometry bring the university up to speed with other leading institutions across the nation and help our researchers to translate their discoveries into real world solutions at a competitive pace. The U’s initial investment also helped to leverage an additional $400K award from the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, creating a partnership with the Mayo Clinic.

In previous years, our office administered the Minnesota Futures awards, large grants of approximately $250K that supported collaborative research, encouraging faculty to advance new ideas and reach across academic disciplines. In five years of administering the program, there were many successes, including Professor Vipin Kumar’s project using satellite imagery to track changes in forest cover that has helped scientists, policymakers and others around the world to better understand climate change. His project alone leveraged approximately $13.2M in external funding; overall leveraging for Minnesota Futures was 1-to-7, or $7 leveraged for every $1 invested.

Resources for collaborative work are now primarily focused on MnDRIVE, the U of M’s landmark partnership with the state. MnDRIVE has provided a tremendous opportunity for our institution to leverage its research strengths in areas such as robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing, industry and the environment, brain conditions and global food to conduct applied research that aligns with our state’s industries. In the first year alone, 120 projects have been funded that involve 354 researchers (including faculty, graduate students and technical staff) across the university system.

But even beyond that, it has encouraged the development of strategic partnerships among these diverse areas, as well the humanities and social sciences, to address some of our greatest challenges in an entirely new way. The Transdisciplinary Research program, funded through MnDRIVE, supports projects that cover at least three of the four MnDRIVE areas and bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines across the university. Last year, we invested $6M in 12 projects that cross three of the universities campuses and include faculty in 16 colleges.

One of those projects explores new ways to boost the state’s renewable energy use. While renewable energies are expanding throughout Minnesota – up 13 percent today from 3 percent in 2005 – many challenges still remain in making renewables a permanent part of the state’s power grid. The team, which combines expertise in public policy, robotics, sensors, biosystems and aerospace engineering, is working with industry partners, such as Gold’n Plump Chicken, a St. Cloud-based food producer, as well the state Department of Commerce, the Midwest Independent System Operator and electric co-operative Great River Energy to explore new options and approaches for better integrating renewables into the system.

Any athlete or avid exerciser will tell you that in order to excel in a sport or physical activity, it’s critical to have a strong core. While researchers ultimately rely on external and private support for their bread and butter (as runners might rely on their legs), these ongoing core investments in our faculty, our infrastructure and in strategic partnerships are essential to the larger success of our research enterprise. Fostering an environment of academic excellence and innovation and strengthening our research infrastructure will ensure that the U of M continues to produce groundbreaking research that improves our world.

Frances Lawrenz is the associate vice president for research at the University of Minnesota and a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. She previously served as department chair and associate research dean of the College of Education and Human Development and associate dean of the Graduate School. Her specialization is science and mathematics program evaluation and she received the national Myrdahl award for outstanding evaluation practice and the national Distinguished Contributions to Science Education award. She is currently the lead PI or lead evaluator for five federally-funded projects and has numerous publications.

Gold block M

Contributing Writer

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