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Eyeing High Research Rank, URI Must Double R&D Spending, Recruit Faculty, Report Says

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The University of Rhode Island must double its spending on academic R&D by 2015, persuade state voters to borrow $100 million to help recruit up to 30 new faculty members, and award more grants to its scientists if it is to grow into a top-tier public-research university, a nine-member commission concluded in a report released last week.
 
In its report, which faulted URI for several shortcomings it said have impeded its academic research effort in the life sciences and other disciplines, the URI Commission for Research and Innovation also concluded that the university must increase efforts to commercialize new technologies, collaborate with industry, and attract a successor to retiring president Robert Carothers “with demonstrated experience in building university-based research capacity, and who is capable of leading a transformative change effort at URI.”
 
By following these steps, according to the commission, URI should achieve a “Research University/Very High Activity” designation from the Carnegie Foundation by 2015.
 
“The Commission believes that URI can and must become a nationally competitive public research university,” the report concluded. “To elevate its position and emerge as a nationally competitive research institution, URI must make progress on virtually all fronts. Incremental changes will not be sufficient to drive this transformation.
 
“Rather, URI, its leadership, and state leadership must commit to making bold changes and creating the conditions necessary to significantly enhance research and innovation capacity at URI,” the report added.
 
The commission presented its report to the state Science and Technology Advisory Council on Oct. 7.
 
The report faulted URI for several shortcomings. One example of a policy in need of modification, according to the commission: Rhode Island subjects URI faculty members to paper-based and lengthy procurement procedures that require multiple approvals — and, in one instance, forced a newly hired unidentified researcher to wait a year until his equipment was purchased, delivered, and installed.
 
“Collaborations between Colleges and partners, vendors, and other institutions are hindered by organizational issues within the post-award process and with procurement processes, and general slow response time at the institutional level on things like hiring and travel,” the commission concluded. “Faculty regard these hindrances as significant barriers to pursuing opportunities.”
 
Over the past year, URI has changed some of its rules to encourage research activity. The university created a new Division of Research and Economic Development, rewrote conflict-of-interest rules that had discouraged entrepreneurship; and persuaded the General Assembly to approve raising from $500 to $5,000 the cap on “limited-value” purchase orders allowing faster decisions.
 
“Although URI has made some progress in addressing these organizational and procedural issues, much still needs to be done to set URI on the path toward greater research competitiveness,” the report found.
 
One key recommendation of the report is a $100 million state bond, subject to voter approval in 2010, for two research-building initiatives: recruiting 20 to 30 top-tier researchers to its faculty and awarding state researchers grants that match what they received from federal sources such as the NIH.
 
The commission envisions a program along the lines of the Eminent Scholars program of the Georgia Research Alliance. Since 1990, the public-private alliance has recruited to the state 60 “eminent scholars” in the life sciences and other technologies, GRA spokeswoman Kathie Robichaud told BRN last week.
 
According to GRA, those Eminent Scholars “must demonstrate a commitment to entrepreneurship by creating companies based on their research and/or establishing centers of excellence.”
 
The report also advised URI to:
  • Give priority in future funding to lab space, faculty, and other resources needed for research, both year-to-year and in its next capital campaign;
  • Reward and promote faculty members based on research activity;
  • Step up outreach to the life-sci and other industries through the Division of Research and Economic Development;
  • Eliminate the status of URI researchers as state employees;
  • Develop advocates for increased university research funding among officials, board members, alumni, and others;
  • Begin “robust” government and community relations campaigns to publicize the university’s research projects;
  • Recruit more student researchers; and
  • Lower tuition to in-state levels or below for graduate students doing research.
“The University of Rhode Island is behind — locally, nationally, and internationally — in both research investment and creating a culture that supports research leadership,” the commission concluded in its report.
 
The 40-page report, Building the Future at the University of Rhode Island: Research, Innovation, and Economic Growth, is available here; and the report’s executive summary is available here.
 
STAC and the state Board of Governors for Higher Education have begun work to implement the recommendations of the $85,000 report, prepared by Providence-based Clarendon Group. The two panels have formed an implementation committee designed to work with state officials and URI administrators and faculty.
 
2,545 New Jobs
 
Saul Kaplan, executive director of the public-private Rhode Island Economic Development Corp., told BioRegion News last week that a greater research focus by URI would benefit the state by generating hundreds of new, higher-wage jobs.
 
That’s no small benefit for a state whose unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent during August, the latest month for which data is available — the highest level since January 1993 — according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. By comparison, national unemployment that month was 6.1 percent, according to the US Department of Labor.
 
The state lost 12,800 jobs in August, a 2.6-percent decrease from the year-ago month, with the highest numbers of job declines in manufacturing (3,100), followed by professional and business services (1,900), and retail (1,800).
 
For that 12-month period, Rhode Island saw its unemployment rolls rise by 19,600, while the number of residents actively seeking work rose to an all-time-high of 48,800.
 

“Incremental changes will not be sufficient to drive this transformation.”

Asked how many jobs an improved URI research effort is expected to generate, Kaplan cited a study released earlier this month by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The study, which relied on methodologies developed by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce, and reported by the Wisconsin Technology Council, concluded that every $1 million in academic R&D spending generates 36 jobs.
 
Therefore, based on the state’s aim to double by 2015 the $70.7 million URI spent on research in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, Rhode Island stands to add 2,545 new jobs.
 
“That’s both direct research jobs that are created, as well as jobs that are created through tech transfer, new-company creation, the ability to infuse ideas into existing companies that allow them to get stronger and create new jobs,” Kaplan said.
 
Kaplan is a member of a newly formed search committee charged with selecting a successor to Carrothers, a process expected to stretch into the coming winter and spring, with a new president set to be named by the summer. The panel’s chairman is Thomas Ryan, the chairman, president, and CEO of CVS Caremark Corp., which is headquartered in Woonsocket. A formal request for proposals by search firms interested in assisting the committee is being finalized.
 
“Our hope is that the next [university] president will make strengthening the research component at URI a very high priority.” Kaplan said. “We want URI to be an economic engine and a key component of our state’s innovation economy that produces better, high-wage job opportunities for our citizens. In order to do that, URI has to be a much stronger, research-based university.”
 
The AASCU study also found that life-science research accounted for 60 percent of the total $47 billion that all US institutions spent on R&D in FY 2006, but only 30 percent of what public colleges and universities spent.
 
“Given that AASCU institutions, by and large, do not possess medical schools or extensive biomedical research facilities, they spend disproportionately less on the life sciences, but disproportionately more in areas such as engineering and environmental sciences.”
 
Going More Commercial
 
The report is the latest in a series of steps that URI has taken since last year to strengthen its research and technology-commercialization efforts. In that time, the university:
  • Hired Peter Alfonso from the University of North Dakota as vice provost for research, graduate studies, and outreach — then elevated his position at URI to the current vice president for research and economic development. Alfonso will also oversee operations at the new $60 million, 140,000-square-foot URI Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, now under construction. The biotech center broke ground last year [GenomeWeb Daily News, April 9, 2007], and is set to open next year.   
  • Persuaded state lawmakers and Gov. Donald Carcieri to approve creation of the URI Research Foundation, with the goal of helping the university capitalize as much as it can on the technologies developed by its faculty members. On Oct. 8, URI announced the hiring of David Sadowski as assistant vice president for intellectual property management and commercialization, following a 17-year career with the National Institutes of Health, most recently serving as deputy director of technology development and transfer. Sadowski was to start his position Oct. 13.
  • Appointed URI Oceanography Professor S. Bradley Moran in June to a half-time position as assistant vice president for research administration.
  • Re-hired John Topping, who had retired earlier, in an intellectual property-management role at URI’s Office of Intellectual Property Management and Commercialization.
  • Hired Phyl Speser, founder of the 28-year-old Providence-based technology transfer consultancy Foresight Science & Technology, as a contractor helping URI carry out tech commercialization. In the life sciences, Speser’s 40-person firm carries out commercialization support for companies funded by the US Small Business Innovation Research program, and the biomedical engineering and translational research professors and institutions funded by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.
“Peter’s direction to me was, ‘Make tech transfer work at URI,” Speser told BRN last week. “We’re going to be the guys who are friendly to industry. We’re going to be responsive, and we’re not going to hang people up if we can move it through fast.”
 
Speser said he has assisted three URI spinouts — one in life sciences and two in software — since starting work for the university about six months ago. Life-sci shops accounts for about half his portfolio of companies, he said.
 
“I do believe there is a good opportunity to expand the amount of industry support at URI, including from the standpoint of [cooperative research and development agreements or] CRADAs,” Speser said in an interview. “You’ve got to go out proactively, seek it out, and you’ve got to do some marketing if you’re not a known commodity.
 
URI is not such a known commodity, he added, because of its past efforts to straddle its focus between both academic instruction and research. Today, he said, the university competes with other research-first schools “by making it clear that this is a hassle-free environment for industry.”
 
Speser said that approach, and the other moves, explain why it harvested $20 million last month in research grants, part of a total $32 million racked up in the first quarter of the state fiscal year. The quarterly figure is half of the $67 million awarded to URI for all of the fiscal year that ended June 30. But that figure is slightly less than what the university said it won for research in FY 2007, when URI racked up “over $68 million in fiscal year 2007, nearly $66 million of which are from federal sources,” according to the home page of URI’s research division.
 
Based on figures from the Association of University Technology Managers, URI’s R&D effort has stepped up its spending in recent years. The university spent $56.7 million in FY 2006, according to the latest US Licensing Activity Survey, released last December and available here. In FY 2005, URI spent $54.5 million on R&D, according to AUTM.
 
“I don’t think that the quality of the research is the problem. The quality of the research is certainly world-class,” Speser said in an interview.
 
Rather, he said, URI had long been hamstrung in research by its three-fold mission of educating state residents at as low a cost as it can, promoting economic development, and shepherding research.
 
And while URI is about an hour’s drive from the hub for neighboring Massachusetts’ life-sci cluster, Speser said he does not believe URI has been hurt by its proximity to Cambridge and Boston.
 
“The problem [occurs] when you have a state with limited resources, if only because of its size,” Speser said, noting Rhode Island’s status as the nation’s smallest state by population and area. “If everybody per capita is paying the same, we have a problem. The resources that are available to expand the research-only mission are not the same as in larger states. That’s just the fundamental economic reality we’ve got to deal with. That is really the most significant issue I can think of that inhibits URI from expanding its research presence.
 
“It’s really a question of, ‘How do you find the resources that allow you to get the leverage going so that you can go out and do more research, train more graduates, support more graduate students, and then have the time to do the preliminary research that allows you to write really whiz-bang proposals, and winning proposals?’ That’s just a tough one, in a state that’s basically almost bankrupt,” Speser added.
 
Concern that the state may not be able to step up funding for URI heightened last week when the Rhode Island House of Representatives’ Fiscal Advisory staff officials disclosed that state tax collections missed budget projections by $33 million between July and September, the first three months of the state’s current fiscal year. That amount is about the same size as the budget deficit for all of the previous year.
 
‘Predictable’ Recommendation
 
The report suggested setting a “predictable” percentage of state funding, and relying less on students to make up the difference, “through a state funding formula that encourages the generation of non-tuition revenue and research grants at URI.” To secure such a formula, the report added, the university should “cultivate state government’s understanding of URI’s priorities in order to secure predictable state funding levels.”
 
State general revenue funding for URI has plateaued over the past 15 years, inching up 1.2 percent to $63.6 million in the fiscal year that began July 1 from just under $62.9 million in FY 1994. The current level of funding marks a 24.5-percent drop from the all-time high in state funding for URI of $84.3 million, recorded in FY 2006.
 
To balance the current state budget, officials sliced 15 percent, or about $11.3 million, from the state’s subsidy to URI and left 150 positions unfilled.
 
State general revenues fund 11 percent of URI’s total budget in the current fiscal year compared with 14 percent last fiscal year and 27 percent in FY ’94.
 
Finishing Dead Last
 
The commission said URI’s shortcomings in research account for the university finishing dead last in a comparison of research spending that included six other universities nationwide.
 
URI compared itself with two other New England schools it deems to be peers, the University of New Hampshire and University of Vermont; one New England school it claims it aspires to be like, the University of Connecticut; two emerging public universities, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Arizona State University; and the public research university it deems best-in-class, the University of Michigan.
 
During the academic year that ended July 30, 2006, URI ranked 145th among 150 publicly-funded universities in total R&D expenditures, according to figures from the National Science Foundation. The figures said URI spent $70.7 million on R&D across all categories, of which $46.9 million, or 66 percent, came from various federal programs. By comparison, the average R&D spend across the 150 schools during that period was $215.7 million.
 
Federal research spending accounted for about $18.5 billion of the nearly $32.4 billion spent by publicly funded universities on all R&D from all sources, NSF concluded in its study, available here.
 
Between 1996 and 2006, URI’s research spending rose 29 percent, from $36.3 million to about $46.9 million. NSF measured an average 117 percent increase for universities during that period, with UH Manoa more than quadrupling its spending, from $40.2 million to $202.4 million.
 
U-M, the highest-ranked of the schools measured, spent $800.5 million on R&D, with $565.8 million or 71 percent coming from Washington. Between 1996 and 2005, U-M’s R&D spending nearly doubled from about $281.1 million.

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