How has the position of Vice President and Associate Provost for Research evolved over the last five years?
AER: As the first to serve in this position at BU, I have spent much of the last five years assessing the extraordinary research capabilities of this institution, identifying the challenges we face, and shaping this office around four key responsibilities: promoting research and scholarship at the highest level to increase our competitiveness for all sources of funding; implementing policies that support research and ensure compliance with federal regulations; overseeing the administrative units supporting all our scholarly activities; and representing our research enterprise outside the University.
Boston University’s research enterprise—like that of so many other institutions—is evolving in response to the innovative environment in which we work and to the increasing standards and changing needs and priorities of the institution. Important forces in this evolution are the shifting pressures on research funding and the uncertainties in the federal budget. This has motivated us to be more aggressive in competing for grants and contracts and to develop new strategies and alternative models of funding research. During the past year, we have begun working to strengthen our ties with industry and cultivate strategic relationships and collaborations outside our institutional boundaries. These partnerships highlight our strengths and allow us to reach beyond what we could accomplish on our own.
You have changed the format of some of the stories in the current Research at
Boston University. Why?
AER: An important focus of our office is strengthening the “connections” across our research community and bringing the outstanding research and scholarly work of this institution from our classrooms and laboratories to the public at large. We often approach teaching in a linear way, building on a hierarchy of concepts, each of which might have taken decades to establish. In the same way, previous issues of Research at BU have sought to highlight the scholarly work of our talented faculty and students by concentrating on the exciting results and the implications of their research. But acquiring knowledge through learning or research is as much about the final result—understanding an idea explained in a scholarly or research publication—as it is about the complex process of discovery: a roller coaster full of false starts, dead ends, and “aha” moments of euphoria.
I believe that giving students and the public a window into the excitement and importance of research and scholarship is about documenting and exploiting the tortuous but exhilarating journey of discovery, not merely about the destination of this journey. Providing a vivid account of the research process on a printed page of Research at BU is a demanding task. In this issue, we decided to replace some of our traditional, linear storytelling with conversations with researchers in an interview format—a vehicle we feel more compellingly chronicles the actual research process and its endpoint. I hope you will find this experiment worthwhile and fun to read.
What have been, in your opinion, BU’s proudest research accomplishments over the last five years?
AER: There is a great deal of impactful, important work performed at BU each day in many areas of scholarship. Two major successes that perhaps speak more broadly to the strengths and reputation of the University as a whole are our recent induction into the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the recent opening of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke.
The distinction of joining the AAU, an elite organization of 62 leading research universities, is a testament to the quality of our faculty and students, to BU’s rapid ascent as one of the major urban research universities, and to President Brown’s extraordinary leadership. Membership in the AAU is not only enhancing the visibility and reputation of our institution but it allows us to participate in high-level conversations on all aspects of research and education in American universities and gives us an important voice in shaping federal policies and practices that will help determine the future of higher education.
The MGHPCC, meanwhile, is a 10 MW computational facility built through a groundbreaking collaboration between BU, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, UMass, the Commonwealth, and two industrial partners: Cisco and EMC. The MGHPCC represents a state-of-the-art “green” computational facility indispensable in the increasingly data-rich environment that is reshaping the way we communicate and innovate across academia and all other sectors of society. Beyond partnering to build this extraordinary facility, the university consortium has also been successfully collaborating on research and other infrastructure projects, dispelling the perception that the Boston area is missing the “collaboration gene.” Without a doubt, these collaborations will raise the profile of each of our institutions and will enhance the reputation of the Commonwealth as one of the world’s preeminent innovation hubs.
What is next for Boston University as a major research university?
AER: Like our peers, we are working to manage increasing pressures on research funding due to the uncertainties in the federal budget. We must turn these challenges into opportunities: for example, by becoming more aggressive and strategic in applying for grants and contracts, by exploring new funding mechanisms, and by forging strategic partnerships inside and outside the institution. I am convinced that with vision and discipline we will continue BU’s upward trajectory among major research universities.
Be sure that, as we speak, there are students and members of our faculty and collaborators in labs, studios, and classrooms contemplating a new cure to a currently incurable disease; creating a groundbreaking new work of art, music, or literature; uncovering a previously unforeseen phenomenon; or arriving at new solutions that will change the way we think about the world and help to make it better for future generations.