ASU Shakes Up Standard Approach to Research

May 29, 2012

A quiet revolution is fomenting within Arizona State University.

This little uprising was not instigated by students or teaching assistants, nor by the folks who empty the wastebaskets, nor even by the faculty.  It is being led from the top.

Admittedly that means it might not qualify, in classic terms, as a revolution.  The regime will not be toppled.

Instead the rebellion is directed at scientific research.  The ringleaders hope to revolutionize how research is performed – within the hallowed halls of ASU and, by extension, at other institutions – and what it produces.

Frankly, ASU doesn’t have a lot to lose.  It has been a second-tier research university, ranking 71st in the country in research expenditures.  By comparison, the University of Arizona ranks 26th.  (Each would fall a few notches if the various University of California campuses were ranked separately rather than being aggregated together.)  Regardless, the only way to go for ASU is up.

The stakes are rising.

“In the age of knowledge management,” one ASU administrator stressed, “academic institutions either will be relevant or they won’t.”

Breaking With the Old

Research at American universities traditionally has been a bottom-up endeavor.  Each faculty member has been encouraged to follow his own curiosity, to go out and find one or more research grants to support his work, and then to prosecute that research – to the extent that the size of his laboratory, the amount of the grants, and his own skills will allow.  Meanwhile, the professor next door is pursuing his own separate interest, as is the guy down the hallway.

In this system, the only way to add research dollars is to add more professors.  Better yet, luring top scholars will bring in even more dollars.

Their freedom of inquiry is defended by the many academics who argue that advances in knowledge cannot be predicted, planned or mandated.  Progress could come from any quarter at any moment.  Indeed, the system does produce important breakthroughs.  Most often, however, the progress is incremental at best.  Many projects nudge knowledge so infinitesimally, objectively speaking, that their impact is lost.

New Approach Is An Experiment Onto Itself

ASU, led by its president, Michael Crow, is trying to change that.  While Crow himself might not explain it this way, interviews with others reveal that ASU is conducting its own experimentation in how to shake things up.  Some portion of research would:

  • Be directed top-down, rather than remain bottom-up, beginning with deciding what the research topic will be.  These will be bigger, meatier questions than any one professor might dare tackle by himself.
  • Marshal multiple researchers into bigger project teams.
  • Cut across scientific and engineering disciplines, and even across institutions.  If a project calls for a particular expertise, which for instance happens to be a specialty at a Rice or a Stanford, then why not sub-contract that portion or even partner with them?
  • Get the attention of those who fund research.  The hope is that the promise of particular projects will attract the support not just of the federal government but of philanthropic and private sources as well.

Rick Shangraw, who was ASU’s vice president of research before taking over as head of the ASU Foundation, talks of the “M’s.”  That’s short for multi, as in projects that are multi-investigator, multi-discipline, multi-year, and attract multi-millions of dollars in grants.

The M’s are a novel way to build up research money, by getting more leverage out of existing faculty members. Except, however, it requires almost a different skill set.

“You have to be able to think at that level, manage at that level,” Shangraw said.  “You can’t be afraid of running large programs.”

One example of this new brand of leadership is Ann Barker, who until recently was deputy director of the National Cancer Institute.  While there, she championed projects that brought together different disciplines such as, for example, molecular biology and engineering.

Her various roles in Tempe include serving as director of something which in the new-speak of ASU is called “Transformative Healthcare Networks.”  The initiative rather boldly and ambitiously proposes to “leverage science and technology across ASU, U.S. academic institutions, research laboratories and all sectors to provide innovative solutions to major problems in health care.”

How this will come to pass is still being sorted out.  “We’re still making the sausage,” Barker said.  “Having vision is not enough.  We have to get outcomes.”

That’s the only way this particular revolution will amount to anything.

– Richard Gilman






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