The chart of United States R&D funding, as a percent of the federal budget, looks like the electrocardiogram of a dying person. There’s a big peak in 1966—a gasp, if you will—then a plunge into the 1980s, then a flat, flat line. It ain’t pretty. Small wonder that when researchers talk about funding their work, the conversation can veer into cynicism and gloom.
But in FY16, Boston University faculty, defying the odds, secured $368.9 million in new research funding, an overall increase of 13 percent over the previous year. Grants to BU’s School of Public Health, School of Medicine (MED), and College of Engineering (ENG) went up significantly—21 percent, 19 percent, and 15 percent, respectively. Two hundred new grants came in, with 70 of those going to assistant professors—the young up-and-comers who represent BU’s future.
“It was pretty great,” says Diane Baldwin, BU’s associate vice president for sponsored programs. “A lot of institutions are struggling just to stay steady-state, given the declines in federal funding.”
How is BU bucking the trend? The arrows lead to the office of Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research, who many credit with stoking the University’s research fires. “Gloria is laser-focused,” says Jennifer Grodsky, BU’s vice president for federal relations, who works closely with Waters. “She says ‘here is a problem, and here’s how we’re going to fix it.’ She’s not an engineer, but she approaches problems with an engineering mind-set.”
Waters’ challenge: help faculty find their way through the funding thicket, so they can get down to the business of curing Parkinson’s, hunting neutrinos, and investigating ancient civilizations. “We don’t want the faculty to think that all we’re focused on is the dollars,” she says. “We want to focus on some of the great things that this money is going to let us do.”
Her office has helped bulk up four areas of research support across the University: streamlining the grant application and fulfillment process; helping scientists create collaborative, interdisciplinary research teams; aiding partnerships with industry; and helping faculty navigate—and even steer—the murky funding world of Washington, DC.
“We’ve made significant progress, but there’s still a lot to do across all areas of research administration, from simplifying processes to improving faculty satisfaction with the help they receive,” says Waters. “It’s a work in progress but we are chipping away at making things more efficient.”
Streamlining the process
Amy Lieberman, an assistant professor of deaf studies at the BU School of Education (SED), joined the faculty in August 2015. “The support started before I was even here,” she says. “When I came to BU to interview for the position, I met with the dean and several associate deans, as well as the senior grants administrator, and they made it clear that my research was going to be valued and supported here,” she says. “It’s a big part of the reason I came.”
In early 2016, Lieberman received a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how deaf children acquire words through American Sign Language (ASL). She will use an automated eye-tracking system to investigate how deaf children alternate their attention between objects and ASL signs, both of which they must perceive visually. Although the money from the NIH grant wasn’t available until June 1, 2016, SED senior grants administrator Marianne Taylor worked with BU Sponsored Programs (OSP) to make money available earlier. “I was able to get the equipment in March, and set up and be ready to go for when the grant came in June,” says Lieberman. “That was a huge help.”
“Diane Baldwin in Sponsored Programs has done a great job of supporting the faculty when they’re submitting their proposals, but then also, when they get an award, insuring that the account gets set up quickly so that they can start spending the money,” says Waters. “That’s an area where we’ve made great progress.”
Baldwin, whose office submitted 2,159 grant proposals in 2015, says that the OSP—in the past, sometimes seen as more hurdle than help—is making an effort to be more responsive to faculty. “We were viewed as a black hole,” says Baldwin. “A lot of faculty think we just sit here and press the ‘submit’ button. We really want to take some of that mystery out of the process.”
To that end, Baldwin and Waters are actively marketing the OSP to faculty, explaining their value in, say, explaining the differences between a consultant and a subcontract, a gift or a grant. Baldwin is also working to engage more regularly with research administrators across BU, eliminate redundant processes, and also make the inner workings of the OSP more transparent to faculty. “We’ve really tried to transform how we do that here by just really taking a look at our systems,” says Baldwin. “We’re trying to make sure we’re holding ourselves accountable so that we can say to faculty, ‘You can expect this done in approximately x days,’ or ‘You’re next in the queue.’ We’re trying to really up our game.”
Lieberman also credits Boston University for fostering collaboration among different departments, noting that she often interacts with colleagues from the BU College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College and the psychological and brain sciences department within BU College of Arts & Sciences (CAS). Collaboration also enables the work of Christopher Chen, a biomedical engineering professor and director of the newly formed Biological Design Center, who won seven new grants in FY16, following five in FY15.
“We’re trying to take cells in a dish and coax them to assemble into, say, heart tissue,” says Chen. “Understanding the design rules for making tissues will allow us to make test models for human disease and perhaps even show us how to induce tissue regeneration.” Chen notes that the work requires experts from biology, medicine, chemistry, materials science, and engineering.
“Research is becoming more interdisciplinary and, as a result, you need to put together these teams,” says Waters. “The questions are complicated and the challenges are big, and so you need people from a variety of different fields.”
The growing emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration has sometimes steered Waters into the role of scientific matchmaker. One major initiative: quarterly “Research on Tap” presentations, which gather researchers from across the University who work on the same topic from different perspectives. In October 2016, for instance, 15 researchers gave three-minute presentations on microbiome systems, which ran the gamut from biogeochemist Wally Fulweiler discussing the role of nitrogen in the marine microbiome to physicist Pankaj Mehta proposing computational tools to investigate microbial ecology.
The matches don’t always hit pay dirt, notes Waters. Recently, Kevin Outterson, the BU professor of law who is leading the $350 million CARB-X initiative to combat antibiotic resistance, asked Waters to connect him with faculty studying social media. “So I connected him up with Jim Katz, and then they got together with Dylan Walker, and they submitted a proposal that I helped support,” says Waters. “It didn’t get funded, but it has started a collaboration between Kevin and [the BU College of Communication] that never would have existed before.”
Waters also points to the work of Katya Ravid, professor of medicine and biochemistry and director of BU’s Evans Center for Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research. In 2009, Ravid created a new platform—Affinity Research Collaboratives, or ARCs—to facilitate team science and interdisciplinary research. With Ravid’s input, through the above center and the newly founded Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Office, faculty assemble into ARC research groups bound by common interests, like Alzheimer’s disease or metabolic syndrome, to encourage discovery, more co-grant applications, and more co-PI publications. This is critical, says Ravid, given the NIH’s encouragement of collaborative research. And it works. Of the 272 co-investigator grant proposals that the Evans Center submitted between 2009 and 2015, 148 (54 percent) have been funded. “This is very significant compared to the average NIH funding line, which hovers around 6–11 percent,” says Ravid.
Ravid says that while not all collaborations hit the mark, the majority do. She’s been extremely pleased by the faculty’s innovative ideas for collaboration. “A faculty member from mechanical engineering studying the physical properties of bubbles wanted to see if his research might connect with the formation of bubbles in the brain post-trauma,” she says. “That type of connection would never come about without facilitation.”
Building partnerships with industry
Another type of connection that’s increasing: faculty partnerships with the for-profit business world. “We’re seeing faculty getting incredibly creative in finding different funding sources, and lots of increased interest in industry, which is terrific, but it’s adding some complexity,” says Baldwin, who notes that the demands of corporations can sometimes clash with academic freedom and scientists’ need to publish their work. “Industry can be a lot more demanding, from an intellectual property perspective,” says Baldwin.
Though marriages of academia and business can be fraught, BU has already spawned several successes. For instance, Avrum Spira, a MED professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics, is partnering with Janssen Research & Development (part of Johnson & Johnson) and its Disease Interception Accelerator group to develop early diagnostics for lung disease; Edward Damiano, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, established a public benefit corporation, Beta Bionics, to bring his bionic pancreas to market; Tim Gardner, a CAS associate professor of biology, and postdoctoral fellow Tim Otchy, are working with GlaxoSmithKline to develop miniature implants that can read and modulate the signal patterns of individual nerves to treat chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, and sleep apnea.
“The faculty want their work to be used. They don’t want to discover something and just have it sit on the shelf. They want to get it out there,” says Waters. “But in the past, we really haven’t had a focus on developing relationships with industry for sponsored research.” So in 2015, she formed a Task Force on University Collaboration with Industry to look at opportunities and challenges in this area. Her goal, she says, is to create an umbrella organization at BU that connects industry partners with researchers and paves the way for successful relationships. “We’re trying to think about how we can organize ourselves around interacting with industry in a better way,” she says.
Despite the discouraging budget environment, federal grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the NIH, the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other organizations are still there, still desirable, and still coming to BU. Grodsky sees her job as twofold. First, she keeps her nose to the ground, sniffing out current and future funding opportunities, matching them with BU researchers, and arranging events and seminars that help scientists navigate the byzantine grant application process. She also encourages researchers to think beyond what they’ve done in the past, branching further than the NIH, for instance, to apply for grants at the DOD, or thinking creatively about federal grants.
Malika Jeffries-EL, a CAS associate professor of chemistry who investigates organic polymers for next-generation semiconductors and LEDs, has already benefitted from such creative thinking. She recently secured three supplemental NSF grants totaling $73,000. The supplemental grants can be added to existing grants for certain specific costs, like equipment, minority student support, or international travel. They are difficult to ferret without University assistance, and Jeffries-EL would like to see more help in this regard. But it’s worth some digging, she says: the supplemental grants have a less-onerous application process and a higher success rate. And, she adds, they provide critical seed money that can lead to bigger grants down the road.
“It’s almost impossible to get a big grant without some existing data,” says Jeffries-EL, who will use one of the supplemental grants to establish a collaboration with a scientist in Israel and investigate new nanomaterials for LEDs. “We’ll make some materials here, and bring them there, and hopefully get enough pilot data to seed some new grant submissions.”
In addition to connecting researchers to federal grants, Grodsky also puts BU scientists on Washington’s radar. “We want BU to help shape the future of funding,” she says. To that end, she encourages sometimes-reluctant researchers to comment on pending legislation, and serve on advisory committees when asked. She points out that ENG dean and professor Kenneth Lutchen serves on the NSF’s Engineering Advisory Committee and both Anthony Janetos, director of BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, and Daniel Segrè, professor of biology, bioinformatics, and biomedical engineering, are on the Department of Energy Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee.
Funders, says Grodsky, are “hungry for information” from scientists—“they want to know what’s happening in their field,” she says. That’s why she also arranges speaking opportunities for BU researchers in Washington. These range from the formal, like an October 2016 “Smart Cities” event featuring Azer Bestavros, professor of computer science and founding director of the BU Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, to the less formal, like bringing Thomas Bifano, director of the BU Photonics Center, to talk to program directors at the NSF and the Pentagon. “Tom talked to them about the future of photonics—not just about his research, but where the whole field is going,” says Grodsky. “That was tremendously helpful.”
Ultimately, she says, her job is to shine a light on the expertise that BU researchers have to offer. “In addition to senior people, we have an exciting crop of junior faculty coming up,” she says, noting that an impressive number of BU researchers have won early-career grants from the NIH, NSF, and DARPA.
“Our faculty are increasingly competitive in terms of getting funding, and hopefully the resources and infrastructure we’re putting in place are helping them to get these grants,” adds Waters. “But, of course, it’s all up to the faculty and their ideas. That’s what will determine whether or not we’ll get the funding.”