U develops research plan

Officials are seeking feedback as they navigate budget cuts.

U develops research plan

Katelyn Faulks

Since the sweeping federal budget cuts known as the sequester started in March, University of Minnesota researchers have been plagued by financial insecurity.

The Office of the Vice President for Research is working on the University’s research plan for the next five to 10 years, which could help curb the effects of the budget cuts. Brian Herman, vice president of research, said the plan should be ready by November or December.

OVPR is currently conducting online surveys, interviews and focus groups with faculty, staff and students to find the University’s research strengths, what the community wants to pursue and opportunities for collaboration.

“This is a way to identify the issues of real importance to our global community,” Herman said, “because the faculty and students have said, ‘We think this is important for us to be engaged in.’”

Herman’s plan has four main tenets: increasing research investments, applying discoveries to the community, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and thinking more creatively.

Herman projected the University is losing $30 million to $50 million this year from the sequester. The University had about $749 million in sponsored research for fiscal year 2012.

Reduced funding has made collaboration more important. Thomas Hays, College of Biological Sciences associate dean of research, said partnerships between faculty members can invite different expertise and perspectives.

“Sparks are created conceptually based on how a biologist or engineer might look at a problem or question,” Hays said. “It impacts our ability to think outside of the box.”

For example, University engineers and neurologists are trying to make robots that can accurately put electrodes in the human brain, a project funded by the Minnesota Discovery Research InnoVation Economy, or MnDRIVE, program.

Marvin Marshak, physics professor and University director of undergraduate research, said he would like to see a more international focus.

“I’m not opposed to interdisciplinary research; I think it has a place,” he said. “But I think that there’s also a place for multi-institutional work.”Though many departments’ research budgets are limited, the Minnesota Legislature approved $36 million for the MnDRIVE initiative in last year’s legislative session to continue University research in agriculture, energy, robotics and the brain.

“We have been fortunate to have gotten some new investments from the state in this past legislation session that are supporting some research,” Herman said.

Private companies are another funding option, Hays said, and partnerships between the University and industry can be mutually beneficial.

Budget cuts have affected every department differently. Mostafa Kaveh, College of Science and Engineering associate dean for research and planning, said the budget cuts haven’t affected CSE yet.

But Hays said he personally knows researchers for whom the sequester “has been an overriding issue.”

Marshak said he would like to get more students involved in research over the next several years. When students work in labs, he said, it helps them gain additional expertise, apply what they learn in classes and network.

Kaveh said he’d like to see investments in research infrastructure and facilities.

The research plan could also help refocus the University’s efforts to solve global problems, Herman said.

“We want to do this in a manner that brings people together in ways that create added value to the partnership,” he said, “with results that can’t be gained by people working alone.”

After the surveys, focus groups and interviews are done, University students will analyze the results, Herman will present them at a community-wide event by November or December, and the University will decide which research to invest money and expertise in based on the feedback.

For now, the future of University research rests on the opinions of the University community.

“[If there’s] something we all collectively say we should be investing in,” Herman said, “everyone is unified, so it helps us decide this is an important area of research.”