Financial pledges bolster research

by Andrea Vittorio

The Office of the Vice President for Research offered more than $2 million in an internal funding competition among faculty for fiscal year 2011, as part of a long-term push to strengthen the quality and quantity of research at GW.

The financial boost is just one piece of a broad plan to expand research efforts across the institution and raise its stature in higher education through targeted hiring of research-ready faculty, deliberate financial investments and an expansion of undergraduate research programs.

In this year’s design of the University’s strategic plan outlining academic goals over the next decade, Provost Steven Lerman expects to emphasize research – alongside teaching and service – as one of three pillars for improving GW’s standing.

“This is going to take a different form for each area or discipline,” Lerman said. “But overall, we see the research at the University as likely to grow over time, and we want to encourage that in ways that build the reputation of our faculty and quality of students.”

University President Steven Knapp has championed research as one of his top goals during his five-year tenure, committing $5.4 million to infrastructure projects and to the hiring of a vice president to oversee research in 2008.

As the University plays catch-up with its market basket institutions to improve its No. 92 position in the National Science Foundation’s 2009 research rankings, administrators point to faculty and student-led initiatives as the key to building on a well-developed administrative structure.

By hiring grant-garnering faculty from top universities that already foster a research culture, Lerman looks to incentivize a similar mindset at GW.

University spokesperson Michelle Sherrard declined to provide data on the total funds spent to hire new faculty in the last year.

The University's research push will be funded by a combination of external grants, internal cost-sharing and a portion of the Innovation Task Force’s fundraising – a University-wide cost savings and philanthropic initiative that aims to eventually raise $60 million per year.

All of the task force’s resources will be devoted to academics, which Lerman defines as “anything that fits in either the teaching mission or the research mission.”

Saved resources can go down two avenues, either staying in individual schools or rerouting to the provost’s office. Lerman and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz reallocate the saved money toward academic needs as it becomes available with input from deans, the provost’s senior staff, Knapp and Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa.

It’s difficult to estimate the overall cost of becoming a top-tier research institution, Chalupa said, because of the returns on investment that appear through indirect costs – the overhead fees associated with research grants – and fundraising surges inspired by a rising research profile.

“And then there’s this intangible component of raising the value of the brand for people who graduate,” he said.

In GW’s annual research expenditures report to the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2009, the most recent data available, about 6 percent of the University’s research costs were covered by internal resources and 94 percent were funded by external resources.

Chalupa said the University currently brings in more money from indirect costs, in the form of federal reimbursements for infrastructure expenses, than it spends on research.

In fiscal year 2009, the University's research and development expenditures totaled nearly $100 million, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Of that amount, almost $90 million came from federal sources, while about $6 million was funded internally.

Besides the intramural research funding competitions, other internal financial resources available for research include school or college-level competitions, cost-sharing of sponsored projects and a handful of other more limited opportunities, Gina Lohr, special assistant to the vice president for research, said.

By adding a new position of assistant vice president for corporate research, Chalupa strives to bolster external funding sources as well.

“We have to be very careful in how money is invested,” he said. “Some investments will pay things back pretty quickly and others don’t.”

The $275-million Science and Engineering Hall – a project that was in the works before Knapp’s tenure began – is expected to enhance research by offering more physical space for innovation.

The visible commitment to research, will, in turn, encourage more outside funders to donate to GW, Chalupa said.

“People want to be associated with places where there’s excellent research, because they’re giving their money to people who are pushing forward knowledge,” he said.

While donations to the University most often fund student aid, faculty compensation, programming and facilities, Vice President of Development Mike Morsberger said, “Something like research falls into every one of those four categories.”

“The Science and Engineering Hall will address research. Some of these faculty appointments will be in research. We want more undergraduates and graduate students to do research. And we have programs in research,” Morsberger said.

Last year, Chalupa told The Hatchet he hopes to make GW a top-80 research institution by 2015. The NSF’s 2010 rankings, which will be released later this fall, will include the humanities and other social sciences for the first time in a change that may earn the University a higher spot.

As one of his personal goals toward raising the University’s research profile, Lerman seeks to increase opportunities for undergraduate research.

This academic year, the provost committed an additional $100,000 to undergraduate research programs, with $30,000 going toward students and the remaining $70,000 serving as matching funds for faculty.

Though some of the University’s schools maintain their own funding pools for undergraduate research, the financial commitment from the provost’s office and a $30,000 boost from the research office will allow the program to expand.

Lerman, who has been involved in undergraduate research as both a student and a professor, said bringing students into the research realm makes them more involved the quest for knowledge.

“When you’re in a classroom, it’s generally assumed that the professor knows the answer and you have to figure it out or learn it from the professor. When you do research, by its very nature, you don’t even know the answer,” Lerman said, adding that research projects allow for a deeper working relationship between faculty and students.

In achieving the institutional goal, Lerman also hopes to widen the range of student involvement in research – not just in science labs.

“Research is in every discipline. It’s just different in each one,” Lerman said. “My hope is whatever students’ passions are, they’ll have some opportunities to try it out.”

Chemistry professor Houston Miller, who oversees several student-run studies ranging from nanotechnology to combustion chemistry within his Corcoran Hall basement lab, said student investment in projects makes their work more worthwhile.

Beginning last fall, Miller led a class for honors students simulating an algae biofuel company. About a dozen students worked for a year to grow, extract and refine algae into a marketable fuel source.

“They came into it: ‘Let me find a course to put a check mark next to my science requirement and move on,’ and now they’re hooked,” he said. “They’re in here all the time.”

Sophomore Paul Organ, an economics major, said he chose to continue the project this semester as a faculty-mentored research course – along with seven other non-science students – because he liked being able to use a different part of his brain.

“We’re not really science-y people,” he said. “But it’s really fun for one or two hours a week to be able to do some real hard science, to do some crazy experiments and work in a lab.”

Organ and his peers look to establish an undergraduate research fair within the University Honors Program as a way to showcase student work.

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