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Meet Michael Oakes, Interim Vice President for Research

Johnston Hall's east-facing facade

Michael Oakes, PhD, has held a wide variety of roles since he arrived at the University of Minnesota two decades ago. This summer, he added another to that list, becoming leader of the University’s systemwide research enterprise.

Oakes was named interim vice president for research in June, following previous VP Chris Cramer’s departure earlier this year. In the position, he oversees the institution’s $1+ billion research enterprise across all campuses and facilities. He also directly manages units responsible for sponsored projects, research and regulatory compliance, and technology commercialization, as well as 10 interdisciplinary academic centers and institutes.

Originally from Massachusetts, Oakes came to Minnesota and joined the University as an assistant professor in 2001. His academic and administrative roles in the 20 years since involve service in faculty governance, including roles as vice chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee and faculty legislative liaison, as well as research administration, with Oakes co-chairing the Institutional Review Board for more than 15 years and leading on panels with the Human Research Protection Program and the Conflict of Interest Program. Most recently, he was an associate vice president for research in the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR).

Outside of his role in research administration, Oakes is a professor in the School of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology and Community Health. As a methodologically oriented social epidemiologist, his research has been highly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and devoted to enhancing our understanding the social determinants of health and improving health equity.

Below, Inquiry asks Oakes about his thoughts on the research enterprise and how OVPR is adapting to meet the growing needs of University researchers.  

Q&A with Interim VP Michael Oakes

What excites you most about taking on the role of interim vice president for research?

I'm most excited to help advance the University's research mission. VPRs get to incentivize research, facilitate innovation impact, and represent the research community, all while ensuring the welfare of research subjects, compliance with regulations, and excellence in services such as grants management. VPRs also get to work on novel intellectual property issues, region-level economic development plans, human resource challenges, and, um, edit PowerPoint decks.

Ultimately, I'm honored to help President Gabel elevate our great research university to new heights and to assist new teammates, especially those who come from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, to thrive.

What do you see as the unique strengths of the University research enterprise?

It’s people—individuals and teams—that make the University of Minnesota a leading research enterprise. From our tireless essential staff who clean mouse cages, to our promising first-gen post-docs, to the insights of our most distinguished Regents Professors, the people here create greatness and innovative impacts. Our scholarly history, urban Midwest location, and our public land-grant mission all matter. Add to this a medical school, a law school, a school of veterinary medicine, and the sheer size of our research funding—with what looks to be a record level of awards last year that we will highlight in September—and we have a unique and strong research enterprise.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted research in many ways over the past year and a half. Where are we in the return to normalcy and what do you expect for the months ahead?

While unimportant compared to the immense suffering and trauma it caused, COVID has also disrupted our research. It was less than two years ago that we were developing plans and policies to suspend research in order to protect people from the emergent pandemic.

Although it was a difficult time, I remain awestruck by our collective ability to pause, pivot, and continue our work in new ways, including the herculean efforts of the Human Research Protection Program, Research Animal Resources, and Sponsored Projects Administration staff. Despite some staffing shortages in key areas, the research enterprise is robust. The current surge of the delta variant is troubling, but we are making progress.

The efficacy of the available COVID vaccines is nothing short of miraculous. Well, not miraculous: the vaccines are the result of decades of research investment, hard work and sacrifice, and hard-nosed science. Increasing vaccination rates will continue to drive down disease and anxiety. So too will Emergency Use Authorization approval for children (expected later this year). The surge in Minnesota associated with the delta variant should dissipate by late September. I expect our research enterprise may be closer to “normal” by mid-October.

What are some of your initial goals for the research enterprise? Where do the opportunities lie going forward?

The primary goal of an interim leader during a crisis (e.g., COVID) must be to ensure stability and ongoing success. Beyond this, I aim to help grow the University’s research portfolio and its impact. Congress is discussing significant increases to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and other research agencies in the near future. Should those increases materialize, I want to help our scholars be competitive for those resources, as well as for growth opportunities with corporations, startups, national defense agencies, philanthropies, and community groups.

I believe academic freedom and basic research are the foundations of a university and must never be compromised. But I also think we can do more to contribute and be recognized for doing so. As such, I aim to elevate and incentivize applied and socially impactful research. There are tremendous opportunities for meaningful impact in biotechnology, cybersecurity, climate and sustainability, corporate collaborations, and community engagement. I hope to encourage research that helps to solve important practical problems, especially for Minnesota. This includes cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with industry researchers and start up companies, government agencies, community groups, and indigenous tribes. I also want to help improve how we communicate to the public about the amazing work University researchers do.

How has OVPR itself been adapting to better meet the needs of the research community?

The record growth of our research enterprise means there are more and more demands on our service centers (e.g., SPA, HRPP, IACUC, RAR). Regulatory requirements seem to only get more stringent and complicated, which presents challenges and sometimes risk. Of course, research foci are always changing, as are demands on researchers’ time.

OVPR needs to not only keep up with but anticipate needs so that researchers can do their work. Here are five of the many things OVPR is doing in this regard. First, the HRPP continues to innovate and ensure compliance while also reducing protocol turnaround times. Second, SPA is implementing a new enterprise-level grants management information system, MN-GEMS. Third, I am elevating the role of associate deans for research so as to better coordinate college-specific goals. Fourth, we have established a new internal grant program to address troubling inequalities, the Social Justice Impact Grant (SJIG) program. Fifth, we have begun a new initiative to improve coordination of shared research resources (e.g., expensive research toys). Finally, sixth (yeah, yeah), OVPR is implementing a new framework for enhancing corporate engagement and innovation impact.

Anything else you would like to add?

Admittedly corny at times, when talking about OVPR, I often highlight the words Excellence, Integrity, Responsiveness, and Impact. These exemplify my leadership values and what I view as foundation stones for the OVPR culture. The words matter to me. I will be sharing more about these values in the near term.


More about Michael Oakes

  • I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts (and no, I don't have a South Boston accent).
  • I have two German Shepherd dogs: Abby (female, 3.5 years old) and Max (male, eight months).
  • I enjoy lifting weights and swimming laps in the Rec Center; one reason I was excited to work at UMN is because of the awesome 50 m lap pool.
  • My favorite comedian is Dave Chappelle; he's a poet, actually.
  • Except for country, I listen to most every kind of music: from ABBA to the Grateful Dead to Mozart to Alexi Murdoch to LCD Soundsystem to John Lee Hooker and so forth.
  • I'm super jealous that Senior Vice President Jakub Tolar was invited on stage by Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam. Super jealous!
  • My high school classmates voted me most likely to be a dishwasher; perhaps someday soon.
Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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