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Vice president for research R. Timothy Mulcahy
New VP for research looks ahead
By Bruce Erickson and Gayla Marty
From Brief, February 16, 2005
R. Timothy Mulcahy became the University's vice president for research February 1--a position with statewide impact on all the campuses and research stations. He comes from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor of pharmacology, associate dean for biological sciences, and associate vice chancellor for research policy.
In his new position, Mulcahy reports directly to President Bruininks. He recently responded to questions about his role. What strengths does the University of Minnesota research community have over other universities in the country?
The U of M boasts a comprehensive array of schools and colleges, uncommon at universities across the country. This breadth provides great opportunities for interdisciplinary activities, which is the wave of the future for research. The infrastructure--both physical and administrative--is strong, and leadership is actively planning for its future. The faculty, staff, and students are terrific. This combination of assets might not be unique to the University of Minnesota, but it is uncommon. The University also enjoys exceptional support from local industries, businesses, and civic groups.
Office of the Vice President for
The OVPR has U-wide responsibility and reports to the president. Programs and offices include
>Fostering integrity in research, scholarship, and teaching
>Office of Oversight, Analysis, and Reporting
>Office of Regulatory Affairs
>Research Subjects' Protection Programs
>Sponsored Projects Administration
>Technology Commercialization and Business Development
420 Johnson Hall
For more information and links to U-wide research information, see http://www.research.umn.edu
The University is recognized to be the national leader in electronic grants administration and training in the responsible conduct of research. These functions are the envy of research-intensive universities--believe me, I know. We are also among the first research universities in the country to have our human subjects protection program certified by the AAHRPP [Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs]. In the minds of colleagues struggling to earn this significant stamp of approval, that fact alone was sufficient to justify my move to Minnesota.
In short, all of the ingredients for a strong future are in place here. However, my initial perception is that this academic "wealth" could be better coordinated to maximize benefit to the University and the community in terms of competitiveness.
What do you bring with you from Wisconsin that will benefit the University of Minnesota?
In addition to very fond memories, I bring nearly 20 years of experience as a faculty member and nine years as an administrator at a very strong, large, and decentralized research-intensive university. My experience as associate dean for the biological sciences and daily interactions with my counterparts in the physical sciences, social studies, and arts and humanities has helped me appreciate the value of each core discipline and the unique challenges they confront. The most important lesson learned is that one size does not fit all. Decisions and solutions must acknowledge, respect, and accommodate these differences whenever possible.
Research is more than the clinical advances and cutting-edge technologies that receive media coverage...it's also the scholarship that less well-covered faculty perform every day. How do you plan to communicate to the citizens of Minnesota about the research and scholarship going on in all the disciplines at the University?
I like to think of my role as promoting research and scholarly works. We are not a research institute, but rather a university, a community of scholars. The activity of everyone, from artist to zoologist, enriches the whole, provides our students with a fuller learning experience, and enhances the quality of life. For example, I plan to develop a feature for the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) Web page that will highlight the impressive range of scholarly work conducted on campus, profiling those involved and telling their stories. The VP for research needs to be an advocate for all scholarly activities. Through stories on the OVPR Web site and in OVPR publications, testimony at the legislature, and presentations to local organizations, I will do my best to promote and support University research and scholarship.
The University of Minnesota is consistently ranked among the top research universities but has dropped in some recent surveys. What do you think about this, and what can the University do about rankings and perceptions?
Rankings are important tools for assessing performance, but interpreting rankings is like peering into a lake in bright sunlight--it's only when you look with polarized glasses that you can make out important details of what lies below the surface.
Although the University of Florida report released recently indicates a decline in the aggregate performance of the University of Minnesota, detailed review indicates enhanced research performance. For example, it states that "research volume is by far the clearest indicator of university research competitiveness." In this benchmark category, the University of Minnesota went from being ranked thirteenth in the first report issued in 2000 to eleventh in the most recent report, compiling a 42 percent increase in total research expenditures in that interval.
But the report also highlights areas where we've lost ground, alerting us to issues needing attention. The biggest decline noted was in the number of faculty [members] receiving national awards or recognition for their research and scholarly works. We need to understand the reasons for this shift and take corrective action to reverse it. More competitive salaries provided by our peers is, no doubt, a major contributor to this trend, as some of our best are lured away.
I think it is most productive to compare performance in equivalency classes. Such an approach blunts the impact of periodic swings in individual indicators and reveals our true peers. In terms of equivalency, the University of Minnesota retains its stature among the best research universities in the country. But complacency with that stature will result in steady decline because our peers aspire to improve their stature. If we don't keep pace, we will ultimately lose ground. As VP for research, I will be a partner with all segments of the University community to not merely keep pace but advance our stature.
In terms of the public outreach and advocacy, how active a role do you plan to play at the legislature, advocating for financial support for the University and its research mission, in particular?
I am prepared to carry the University's banner whenever the need or opportunity arises. I will coordinate efforts with other campus leaders, of course, but I feel very strongly that, as an advocate for research, the VP needs to be the University's research ambassador to all relevant constituencies. The University also needs to assume a more prominent role and be identified as an important player at the national level. I look forward to partnership with state and federal liaison staff to make progress in that direction.
The University has a couple of new initiatives designed to help move research discoveries made here beyond the lab bench. (See box, below right.) Is research moving away from being a scholarly pursuit to being big business, or are these initiatives just new approaches to the University's existing mission of providing society the direct benefits of the good work of research faculty?
Technology transfer is a complement to the tradition of basic research and scholarly works characteristic of leading research universities. Inquiry-based investigation and application of innovation are two ends of a continuous spectrum. This principle is fully compatible with the land-grant concept that led to the establishment of many great public universities, including the University of Minnesota.
Getting U discoveries to the
Technology Commercialization and Business Development
Protects and commercializes U-developed technologies and helps University startups succeed.
Translational Research Facility, Academic Health Center
Slated to open this spring, this facility is designed to turn U biomedical discoveries into clinical therapies.
Research park initiative
Such a park would take several years to develop.
Most transformative technologies did not emerge from a planned, deliberate focus on application. They evolved by taking advantage of incremental discoveries made in laboratories conducting basic research. Research conducted at the University will remain a "scholarly pursuit." We want to encourage opportunities to translate such pursuits into beneficial technologies.
Technology transfer does indeed return premiums for the campus, but they are a beneficial by-product of the process of discovery, not the prime motivation. The University and my office will continue to maintain that perspective. The entire campus community benefits from these returns, and never more so than in these times of dwindling support for universities.
Your former institution, the University of Wisconsin, has a research and technology park, and the University of Minnesota is now part of talks to establish a research park near the Twin Cities campus. (See box, right.) What's the value--to U faculty and to Minnesota?
Research parks can have profound effects on local and regional economies. They offer great career opportunities and they attract graduates of the university--effective deterrents to the brain drain that plagues many states with world-class universities. The ripple effects of improved salaries, a better tax base, and flourishing businesses contribute to an overall enhanced economy for the region. Successful licensing also provides resources to support campus research and students.
The Twin Cities area has many assets, not the least of which is the University, that make here and now a great opportunity. The University of Minnesota needs to be a central partner in discussions with civic and business leaders about development of a research park. The conversation will be critical...and a priority for me.
How will the University's new Office of Service and Continuous Improvement relate to your office?
One of the things that attracted me to the University of Minnesota was the strong service orientation of the offices reporting to the OVPR. Staff in this group are recognized nationally as leaders when it comes to developing systems to simplify complicated procedures associated with proposing research and managing grants. My goal is to further reduce, as much as possible, administrative burdens associated with research, freeing up faculty, staff, and students to devote more of their time and talents to creativity and innovation. The vice president's office is engaged in a process of continuous improvement to identify ways we can perform better and how we can serve our community of scholars better. I am committed to working with my staff to enhance our service capability and performance in keeping with an already proud tradition. The Office of Service and Continuous Improvement will be a valuable resource.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I haven't had much free time in the past several years, but I love visiting and playing with my two grandchildren, fly-fishing for trout, tying flies, kicking back at our cabin in northern Wisconsin, and just spending time with my wife, Patti.
Any books you've read recently?
James Fennimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. I grew up in the Adirondack Mountains, along the Hudson River, where the story takes place--in fact, the bridge spanning the river at my hometown, Glens Falls, is located directly above Cooper's Cave, the famous hiding site of Hawkeye and his companions in their attempted escape. My home was within a few miles of Fort Edward, Lake George, and Saratoga. I thoroughly enjoyed Cooper's description of so many familiar places. As a kid, I often played in the woods in each of those areas, imagining myself as Hawkeye. The book was a terrific read and provided many great flashbacks.
Bruce Erickson is a communications coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Research.