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Up to the task

VP Mulcahy leads discussion of the importance of research at the U--and what it will take to achieve top-three status

By Jim Thorp

Brief, Feb. 14, 2007

The University of Minnesota's ultimate goal is well-established: to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. And when it comes to bridging the growing gap in research funding, vice president for research Tim Mulcahy says the U is in a good position--if it acts decisively.

"People have heard that the U is no longer above average in terms of research," Mulcahy says. "In truth, we're no longer above average among the best of the best--that's the group we choose to compare ourselves with.

"I would compare it to the finals in an Olympic sprint," he says. "If you make it to the finals but don't finish with a medal, are you a below-average sprinter? We're well above average, but some significant changes are needed if we want to finish in the medals."

In December, Mulcahy presented his 2006 annual report to the Board of Regents. He provided similar testimony in January to the Minnesota House Committee on Biosciences and Emerging Technologies. Last week, he spoke to the regents again as part of a session on aspects of research related to the U's academic mission.


The U's Twin Cities campus is classified as a public research university because of its Ph.D.-granting status and size. But research permeates the entire University of Minnesota system.

UMD is a comprehensive regional university that offers graduate degrees in 20 fields. Research is an integrated part of academics and campus life. The U of M Graduate School, Medical School, and College of Pharmacy span both the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.

U of M-Morris is a public liberal arts college. Undergraduate research with faculty mentors is a hallmark of UMM's top-ranking student experience.

U of M-Crookston is a comprehensive regional college. The campus is building on its strengths in applied education and research as well as strong faculty-student interaction to create an exceptional student experience.

Undergraduates on all U of M campuses participate in UROP.

Since 1991, the U has fallen from second to ninth among 14 peer institutions in terms of reported research funding. While acknowledging the funding gap between the U and other leading public research universities, Mulcahy has consistently highlighted the U's strengths and outlined plans to address its challenges.

Balanced portfolio

One major source of strength for the U is the diversity and balance of its research portfolio. Mulcahy has examined the change in rank of research universities if medical school research, engineering school research, or both, are subtracted from total research expenditures. If a university's rank is closely tied to one or both of these areas of research, their rank shifts dramatically. But the U's rank shifts very little--a testimony to its strength as a comprehensive university.

Several areas of University of Minnesota research have seen significant growth recently, and current funding patterns indicate the U's push toward greater interdisciplinary scholarship should pay off.

"The Academic Health Center grew funding for shared initiatives by 100 percent in 2006," Mulcahy says. "Essentially, these are interdisciplinary efforts--the types of projects that are going to be successful in terms of federal funding in the coming years."

The future activities of such interdisciplinary initiatives as the Institute for Advanced Study, Institute on the Environment, Institute for Translational Neuroscience, and Institute for the Advancement of Science and Technology should help attract new funds to the University by coordinating and building on existing academic strengths. In addition, these activities help improve teaching and students' experience.

Research as education

At the Feb. 9 Board of Regents meeting, Mulcahy teamed with Extension dean Bev Durgan, Twin Cities campus vice provost for undergraduate education Craig Swan, professor Lanny Schmidt, and chemical engineering undergraduate Sarah Tupy to explain the importance of research to the University's academic mission.

Mulcahy doesn't share the concern that emphasizing the U's role in research will negatively impact teaching. In fact, he predicts the opposite effect.


U of M Extension dean Bev Durgan uses the example of soybean aphid research to illustrate how extension bridges the gap between the lab and the public to respond quickly to problems. For this and other stories, check out the winter 2007 issue of Source , the Extension magazine.

"Research is a perpetual process of discovery that fosters lifelong learning skills," he says, "and at a university like this one, it's in our faculty's DNA." He adds that teachers who are also scholars at the forefront of their disciplines, influencing the way we think about complex issues and shaping students to be deep thinkers and sophisticated problem-solvers.

"Studies in this area have revealed that research helps students develop a critical mindset, which contributes to greater growth and development," he says, regardless of where their career path takes them.

Research is only as beneficial as its applications, however. Durgan gave regents examples of how Extension brings research to the public to solve practical problems--in agriculture, food safety, and nutrition. (See box, left.)


To begin bridging the research funding gap, Mulcahy recommended several strategies to the regents in December.

To increase its share of federal research support, the U must:

>> Build its research capacity, in terms of both faculty and facilities
>> Provide for critical research infrastructure
>> Emphasize interdisciplinary research
>> Work with colleges to develop strategic plans for enhancing research productivity
>> Take advantage of major research opportunities aligned with existing U strengths
>> Enable increased faculty productivity through the new Office of Collaborative Research Services

To increase sponsored research collaborations, the U must:

>> Work to bridge the gap between publicly funded basic research and private investment in marketable innovations or solutions
>> Emphasize long-term relationships and revise its negotiating practices
>> Continue to develop the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership and the new Academic and Corporate Relations Center
>> Work to increase funding available through the state, technology commercialization, and the University of Minnesota Foundation.

"The U remains one of the premier public research universities in the country," Mulcahy says. "It ranks below average among the elite group of institutions we intend to be judged against. We are focused on a plan to be near the top of this group within 10 years."

Tupy offered an undergraduate perspective of research in the lab, where she works alongside Schmidt's graduate students. She added to Mulcahy's list of educational benefits, explaining that her lab work has greatly enriched her classroom experience and helped to form a stronger bond with the department.

Swan oversees the University-wide Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which gives undergraduate students and faculty members the opportunity to work together on research, scholarly, and creative activities. Begun in 1985, this competitive program now provides more than 400 students a year with financial support while they assist with a faculty member's scholarship or carry out projects of their own under the supervision of a faculty member. Physics professor Marvin Marshak will be leading a charge to provide greater opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in basic research on campus.

"Currently, 25 to 30 percent of our undergraduates have had deep and sustained involvement in research," Swan says. "Our goal is to make that 50 percent."

Working smarter and harder

Federal sources provide roughly 75 percent of research funding for the U and must be a top priority. Mulcahy believes that the University can increase its share of federal research support by emphasizing its interdisciplinary strengths, working with colleges to develop strategic plans to enhance research productivity, and taking advantage of major opportunities aligned with University strengths.

"The National Institutes of Health budget for 2007 is expected to increase by less than one percent," says Mulcahy. "For the third year in a row, it will fail to keep pace with inflation." All research institutions will feel the pinch in this increasingly competitive environment: he says investigators seeking federal funds should expect success rates of approximately 20 percent or lower.

"Faculty will have to submit proposals one-and-a-half times to twice as often to succeed," Mulcahy says. "They will need us to facilitate the process.

"The core is healthy--strategic positioning has put the University in position to attain its research goals. The U has seen continuous growth of research funding over the last decade, [and] has identified critical challenges and formulated strategic responses. Make no mistake: with a declining federal R&D budget, times are going to be tight--but I believe the U can win."

For more information on the state of U research, download Mulcahy's complete report (DOC 354 KB) or presentation (PDF 216 KB). FURTHER READING Research without borders U survey shows broad alumni impact New VP for research looks ahead