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Timothy Mulcahy, new VP for research beginning Feb. 1, 2005.

Timothy Mulcahy, the University's vice president for research, reports that the University is experiencing an upswing in key measures of research activity.

Research on the rise

The University moves up a notch in two key areas

By Deane Morrison

January 18, 2008

It's research that makes the academic world go 'round, and so the University's recent progress on that front came as welcome news. No single statistic can wholly define the U's status among its public research university peers. But as the University strives to join the top three such institutions, its 8.4 percent increase in expenditures for research in 2006 was a step in the right direction. "It's a good indicator of the prominence of an institution," says Vice President for Research Timothy Mulcahy. "You're not going to convince people that you're in the top three public research universities if you're not high in that [expenditures] category." The figures came from an annual report for 2006--the last year for which data is available--by the National Science Foundation, which uses uniform criteria to compare science and engineering research expenditures by American universities. Mulcahy presented them as part of a wide-ranging report on research activity to the University's board of regents last month.

Crunching the numbers

Between 2005 and 2006, the University's research expenditures rose from $549 million to $595 million. That jump, second only to the University of Washington's 9.9 percent rise, allowed the U to move from tenth to ninth place among public universities. But is the U gaining ground on institutions with higher rankings? While the University's upward move is good news, it still has to regain eighth position, its standing in 2004. Mulcahy points out, though, that the gap between the third top public university and the U has narrowed. After hardly budging between 2004 ($238 million) and 2005 ($237 million), the gap fell to $205 million in 2006. With federal research budgets growing more slowly these days, however, competition for those dollars can only heat up.

"We want to be a more effective partner with industry," says Mulcahy. "We want to make it easy for companies to find what they're looking for at the University, establish long-term partnerships, and identify what [technologies] may be of use."

Another thing that stands out from the charts is that the same universities (UW Madison, UCLA, U Michigan, UC San Francisco, U Washington, and UC San Diego) have accounted for the top six positions among public institutions for three years (2004-06). To get in striking distance of third position, the University may face its biggest hurdle in breaking into this group. That's because the gap between the sixth- and seventh-ranked universities was a whopping $109 million in 2004, $82 million in 2005, and $105 million in 2006. Therefore, if the gap persists and the University's research funding keeps rising at its current rate, it could take a few years just to move up this one notch.

Mining the gold

The NSF counts research support from five source categories: business and industry (B&I), institutional funds, state and local support, federal support, and "all other sources." The University, says Mulcahy, is "going across the board" to beef up all of them. B&I is one area ripe for growth. "Our business and industry support is not as strong as our competitors, but we're trying hard," Mulcahy says. "Given that we're a major metropolitan university in the midst of industries, we're focusing on strengthening ties." In April 2007 the University hired Jay Schrankler to head the Office of Technology Commercialization. His job is to increase the number of patent disclosures by University researchers, and, as a result, the number of patents, licenses, and start-ups based on University-developed technology. Much of the revenue from licensing is plowed back into research, which will help those numbers, too. The main goal is to identify and nurture inventions with market potential. Big winners for the University in recent years include a new vaccine for a swine respiratory virus, a lensmaking technology for eyeglasses, and the anti-HIV drug Ziagen. But some technologies pay dividends that have nothing to do with revenue. "In some cases, we give licenses or patents for the public good, like the pheromone to combat the sea lamprey," says Schrankler. "We just gave the license to the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission at no cost." In FY 2005, the University ranked sixth in the nation in revenues from university-based technology with $47.5 million, moving up to fifth in FY 2006 with $56.4 million. Patent disclosures are on the upswing, too; for example, in the Institute of Technology, they rose about 30 percent in the last year, Schrankler says. The University is being more discriminating in choosing technologies to develop, Mulcahy says. The strategy includes "a more robust business analysis of opportunities" and greater efforts to help faculty reach the point where they're ready to make a patent disclosure. Matching researchers with companies is another priority. In the last year, contacts between Schrankler's office and industrial companies has increased three-fold, he says. "We want to be a more effective partner with industry," says Mulcahy. "We want to make it easy for companies to find what they're looking for at the University, establish long-term partnerships, and identify what [technologies] may be of use." Mulcahy's report to the regents is available as a pdf.