The Future of Research Universities: Q&A with Departing VP Brian Herman
In 2013, Brian Herman, Ph.D., joined the University of Minnesota as its vice president for research.
During his tenure, Herman helped the U’s research enterprise continue to grow by diversifying funding sources, increasing public-private partnership and enhancing protections for human research participants. His recent report to the Board of Regents highlighted, among other accomplishments, research funding at record levels and thriving technology commercialization and economic development efforts.
Now, four years later, Herman is preparing to transition out of the Office of the Vice President for Research and join the College of Science and Engineering faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. In the Q&A below, Herman discusses the progress of the U’s research enterprise and the future of public research universities.
How has the U of M research enterprise evolved during your tenure as VP for research?
The research enterprise has continued to grow and research awards are at an all-time high. One major change that’s occurred during my tenure is the diversification of funding sources. We’ve made a very sustained and successful effort in increasing revenues from nonfederal sources, including business and industry as well as other collaborations with universities.
I think we’ve created a more prominent role for the University in economic development, and new incentives for business and industry to partner with us to create new companies and translate new knowledge generated at the University into commercial value. Also, through MnDRIVE, we’ve been able to very successfully drive enhanced engagement with industry, create new jobs, bring in new outside funding to support research and create many new partnerships with the industries in the state.
The U ranks eighth nationwide for research expenditures among public universities, according to the most recent data. What factors do you believe contribute to its preeminence in research?
I think you have to look to the quality of the faculty, the breadth of the University’s capabilities and the partnerships that the University has been able to forge with its external community, including public, private and nonprofit organizations.
What qualities do you admire in U researchers?
I’m inspired by researchers who have tremendous drive, tremendous focus and tremendous fun in doing their work. I admire those who partner a lot with their colleagues and are willing to bridge disciplines.
What are the greatest challenges that the U of M and other public research universities now face?
I think there are two major challenges that remain for research universities. The first is being competitive in securing external research funds; we need to continue to look at diversification of available resources. The private corporations of the world hold the majority of the funds that are invested in R&D in this country. We need to create even more positive, proactive partnerships with those corporations that allow the research to be done and the companies to benefit from it. We also need to continue to articulate the value of science and of academic research, to hire really smart faculty and to train really smart future scientists to enhance our competitiveness for these funds.
The second challenge is trying to become as efficient as possible in the transactional nature of the research engine. We must diminish the regulatory compliance cost to the University and particularly to the faculty who are applying for grants. Where possible, we have removed duplicative and unnecessary steps of the processes governed by OVPR policies. That’s already resulted in $10 million in savings just on the time and effort of individuals. We need to continue to be vigilant about doing that across the university.
As you transition to CSE faculty, what excites you most?
I get the chance to go back to my research career and have an opportunity to continue finding important solutions to particular health concerns that afflict our aging population. The goal of my research will be to create knowledge that’s useful in advancing the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and potentially developing interventions to either slow or prevent the development of those diseases.
I’m looking forward particularly to working with some of the faculty that are already here at the University working in the areas of aging and Alzheimer’s disease. I’ll also get to interact with students who are young, energetic, enthusiastic and challenging all at the same time.
Have you thought about how your prescription for the U (to work more with industry) might apply to your research?
I hope we can license the work that we will do to a company that will develop it and market it, which fits into the theme of public-private partnership I have talked about. It’s too early to say, but there may be an option to create a new company based on some of this technology, or that some of the work might be funded or supported by corporations or companies that have an interest in these areas.
In general, how do you think academic research needs to adapt to thrive in the future?
We have to have more multi-institutional, multi-university partnerships. As research universities, we all strive to be the best at everything, but we are not going to be able to do it. The more we compete against each other versus collaborate with each other, the more difficult it becomes to solve really wicked societal problems, such as hunger, poverty and health issues.
We also need to engage with our community and partners to create both social and economic value at the same time. It is not enough that our research has the potential to save lives, improve our society or even help our planet. The public also expects that our research processes are ethical; they expect to be shown how this work connects with their lives and they want to be actively included in the planning, execution, analysis and benefit of the research they participate in.