In June, Vice President Neil Sharkey will retire after almost six years at the helm of Penn State’s research enterprise. Under Sharkey’s leadership, research expenditures reached an all-time high of $927 million in 2017-18. Among his accomplishments, Sharkey has been instrumental in expanding and improving upon the University’s research infrastructure as well as the development of the Invent Penn State initiative, which has led to the creation of 21 innovation hubs at Penn State campus communities statewide. Sharkey recently sat down with David Pacchioli to look back on his tenure.
What sets Penn State apart, in your eyes?
We’ve got one of the best, if not the best, collaborative research enterprises in the nation. The institute model, established by my predecessors, has really served to make us a place where people think collaboratively from the get-go. It has rendered a culture that is really equipped to deal with big problems that require trans-disciplinary thinking. It’s also a can-do culture, a land-grant culture, that’s sort of ingrained in everything Penn State does.
Another thing that sets Penn State apart is the Applied Research Lab. The magnitude of Penn State’s contributions to naval defense is just remarkable. It’s kind of a well-kept secret.
What accomplishments are you personally most proud of?
I’m proud of the steep incline over the last couple of years in our research expenditures. We’re on our way to a billion dollars a year. That’s a credit to our faculty.
The whole entrepreneurial thrust is another point of pride. I think Invent Penn State has exceeded anyone’s expectations. It’s been wildly successful, and it started from nothing, really. It’s amazing what you can do when you’ve got a president out front, stirring things up!
I’m personally proud to have brought more recognition and prestige to research in areas beyond the classic STEM disciplines. Social and behavioral science has been elevated, and is doing really well on this campus. The same goes for the arts and humanities.
What are some next steps for your successor?
A biomedical research institute here at University Park is a major priority. A lot of work has been done toward this, and it’s getting close to fruition. And we now have the infrastructure in place to grow our collaborations with industry. That’s something that’s been on my mind since I walked in the door. I like to think that with a couple more wins we’ll hit a critical mass and it’ll start to get easier.
What are your thoughts on the funding landscape, particularly at the federal level?
Right now there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle for investment in R&D, but I worry about how sustainable that is. I worry that more and more of the funding for R&D comes from higher ed institutions themselves. These are things that people are going to have to grapple with in order for the U.S. to maintain a healthy national R&D enterprise. And it’s imperative that we do, or we will lose our global position. We’re not the big giant all alone out in front anymore.
And on Penn State’s role as an economic engine for the Commonwealth?
We have a huge economic impact just by virtue of our size and employment numbers. But we’re also creating new jobs. Our undergrads are standing up new businesses through Invent Penn State, and our postdocs and grad students are doing so by developing the high-end IP that comes out of our federal awards. The trick is to keep these job creators here in Pennsylvania, provide the environment they need for success.
What advice would you give your successor?
Take your time. Look around. Don’t fix what ain’t broken. Fill in those gaps where we should be, like biomedical research, but not at the expense of what we already do well. Listen. That’s probably my number one piece of advice. Recognize that you’re not always the smartest person in the room.
What have you enjoyed the most?
It’s been such a privilege to be able to talk to some of the world’s best researchers, across all domains, on a regular basis. It has made me really proud to be at Penn State, and made me realize the scope of Penn State’s contributions to science and to humankind. I know that sounds corny, but it really is true.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Research/Penn State magazine.