New research VP Brian Herman unveils master plan for University research

Brian Herman outlined new initiatives at a July 10 Board of Regents meeting.

Janice Bitters

The University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents heard from new Vice President for Research Brian Herman for the first time July 10, when he presented his plan for advancing University research initiatives.

One of the University’s long-term goals is to be one of the top three research institutions in the world.

“Our research really does define an absolutely critical element of this institution,” President Eric Kaler said at the meeting.

During his presentation, Herman highlighted the importance of creating new research funding sources, encouraging more research collaboration and increasing the number of times per year the University unveils new discoveries to the public.

Combating scarce funding

A focal point of Herman’s plan included initiatives to combat the impacts of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequestration, which is making research funding scarce.

“The University has had tremendous success in the past,” Herman said. “But like many research-intensive public universities, it’s facing some real constraints in terms of resources to carry on research in the future.”

Herman predicted a decrease in research funding at the University in the coming year. His estimated $665 million in total funding for fiscal year 2013 would bring the University back to its 2008 funding levels.

To combat the anticipated decrease in funding, Herman outlined several initiatives, including the expansion of the bridge funding program, which provides University money for research projects that temporarily lose funding.

During the 2011-12 academic year, seven researchers  from the University’s Twin Cities and Duluth campuses received bridge funding.

Last month, the Office of the Vice President for Research announced it would increase the amount it could provide from $30,000 per request to $150,000.

But the funding comes with conditions.

“[Funding] requires a match from the school for the faculty to get this funding,” Herman said.

According to the meeting docket, researchers must receive one-third of their research funding from their college or department  in order to qualify for bridge funds.

In addition, researchers who request bridge funding must show they are likely to receive funding from outside sources in coming years.

The program is meant to “provide some interim gap funding for the people who have a research grant and have a productive research program but are having trouble continuing to be competitive in the short run,” Herman said.

In the 2012-13 academic year, more than 100 University researchers received nearly $6 million through various University funding programs, according to the OVPR. 

Creating a ‘culture of the whole’

Another one of Herman’s goals is to encourage faculty to work across departments, colleges and universities — something he said has been lacking in past years.

“Our research at all institutions has really focused on the culture of the individual rather than the culture of the whole,” he said.

Herman used a recent breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research by professor Karen Ashe to demonstrate how collaboration has recently impacted the University.

Ashe built on Herman’s past research, and her breakthrough could lead to a drug that would treat Alzheimer’s and others with neurodegenerative disorders.

“The [research] strategy that we’re adopting will depend upon studying the enzyme that Dr. Herman has devoted a lot of his career to,” Ashe told the regents.

Knowledge disclosures

Herman also said he plans to increase the number of research findings the University shares in the next year, keeping with goals set for the University by the state Legislature in May. 

“One of the other aspects of the research activity at the University is not only discovering new knowledge,” Herman said, “but it’s taking that knowledge and putting it out into society through the commercialization process.”

The Legislature has requested the University increase its knowledge sharing with the public by 3 percent between 2013 and 2014, which would bring the number of research disclosures to an estimated 340 for 2014, according to the meeting docket.

Between the 2011 and 2012 academic years, the number of disclosures increased by about 22 percent without prompting from the Legislature.