UCI Podcast: How UCI built a research powerhouse with a record funding year

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From cutting-edge research and clinical trials focused on cancer care to creating a new center devoted to protecting personal data privacy, UCI researchers are blazing new paths to help change the world. And their impact only keeps growing. In fiscal 2019-20, which ended on June 30, UCI researchers receive the most funding and campus history with $529 million in grants and contracts. That’s an increase of 20 percent over last year’s totals, and it represents awards from federal and state agencies, leading foundations and forward-thinking companies that reflects strong and growing support for UCI as top rank faculty its first-rate facilities, its diverse and talented student body, and its community-based programs. Leading the effort to keep UCI’s researchers well-funded is Pramod Khargonekar, the vice chancellor of research. He joins the UCI Podcast to describe how the campus has become a research powerhouse.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Hi, this is Tom Vasich, and this is the UCI Podcast. From cutting-edge research and clinical trials focused on cancer care to creating a new center devoted to protecting personal data privacy, UCI researchers are blazing new paths to help change the world. And their impact only keeps growing. In fiscal 2019-20, which ended on June 30, UCI researchers receive the most funding and campus history with $529 million in grants and contracts. That’s an increase of 20 percent over last year’s totals, and it represents awards from federal and state agencies, leading foundations and forward-thinking companies that reflects strong and growing support for UCI as top rank faculty its first-rate facilities, its diverse and talented student body, and its community-based programs. Leading the effort to keep our researchers well-funded is Pramod Khargonekar, the vice chancellor of research. He joins the UCI Podcast to describe how the campus has become a research powerhouse.

UCI Podcast: Thanks for joining the UCI Podcast, Pramod. In the four years you’ve been at UCI, research funding has nearly doubled and now surpasses the goals of the campus strategic plan. How does that make you feel?

Khargonekar: Makes me feel great. I mean, I think it’s a tremendous achievement for the campus, and to do it in this time period is just absolutely fantastic. And I congratulate everybody involved in the UCI research enterprise: our faculty, our students and our staff, who came together to reach this major milestone.

UCI Podcast: This is the second straight year of double-digit growth, in grants and contracts funding. How do you explain that, you know, explosive growth over two consecutive years?

Khargonekar: I mean, that’s a great question. I think this has been in the making for quite some time. And my feeling is that a lot of things that my predecessors and I – and the entire campus community – had been working on for the last few years came together in a way that just led to major successes can.

I can point to a few things – first and foremost, the quality of the faculty. Nothing like this happens if you don’t have high-quality, highly creative, highly energetic people. The existing faculty are a big reason, but then we also hired new faculty. We have been hiring new faculty pretty much since the time I got here, and we have a number of creative programs in new faculty hiring. One of the ones that was very research-oriented was our faculty hiring for leveraged research excellence program, under which we hired people who could collaborate with others on campus, but also take advantage of major research investments in new facilities. I think that program helped. So, I would say people is number one.

Number two is strategic investments in infrastructure, and that takes many dimensions. First and foremost, modern scientific research relies on state-of-the-art instrumentation without which you really cannot do anything. And the campus has been making investments in these types of facilities and instruments and capabilities. The Materials Research Institute is a prime example of that investment, but there are many others. So, I would say building the research infrastructure has been, across the board, a big part of the success, and our target is to provide support to our faculty here.

I’m thinking of things such as seed-funding programs, things such as other research development officers, who don’t write proposals for themselves, but they help faculty write proposals. And I think they make a big difference to campus success in research.

I think we have created a very nice environment for collaborative research. Our team-science accelerator lab, a major initiative that we have taken, allows us to support our faculty who want to work together across disciplinary boundaries and go off the major opportunities.

The tremendous success of the university – it’s all these things that we’ve been working on coming together in a coherent and synergistic way, with the creative ideas of faculty and support from leadership across the board leading us to this success.

UCI Podcast: While looking at the data for fiscal year 2019-20, pretty much across the board in all areas of campus, there has been a steady increase in research funding. There are a few areas that really stand out, and one was an engineering, especially with [funding from] the National Science Foundation. I know that’s very close to you, because you are an engineer, and you have worked at the NSF. So, what’s really particularly gratifying about the new funding for the material research science center and also a center for data privacy research?

Khargonekar: As you mentioned, I used to be the head of engineering directorate at the NSF, so I kind of saw it from inside, and I was just so thrilled when we got the news earlier this year that the NSF has decided to fund our proposal for a materials-research science and engineering center. I want to put that in a bit of a perspective. One of the goals for UCI has been to land a major nationally visible center, funded from either the NSF, National Institutes of Health or the Department of Defense. And there are these marquee centers that people talk about nationally when it comes to NSF, such as science and technology centers, engineering research centers or materials research centers.

It was in our eyesight that a major goal for the campus was to land one of these marquee centers. And Prof. Xiaoqing Pan, along with a number of colleagues from engineering and physical sciences, were successful on this [effort], and it, in my mind, places UCI, among the very, very top research universities in the nation, by having one of these very high-visibility, ultra-competitive research centers. So, to me, that was a major goal for the university that we were able to accomplish this year. And I give kudos to the entire team, and Prof. Pan, for making that possible.

The other project you highlighted Tom, was from Prof. Athina Markopoulou, along with her colleagues in engineering and information & computer science. And it was a very, very competitive project in cybersecurity. And I was just delighted to see that grant come in, because it [addresses] a problem that’s of great contemporary interest (data privacy), which is only going to grow over time. It has to do with mobile technologies, the Internet of Things, and privacy and security issues as we implement these technologies all around us.

So, we made great progress with the National Science Foundation. Overall, I think we increased NSF funding by 18 percent, so it was a very, very strong increase. And I think it’s particularly meaningful, because NSF funding is the most competitive and, in many ways, the purest form of peer-reviewed funding. So, when you succeed in these kinds of competitions, that is actually a tremendous tribute to the quality and the work of our faculty.

UCI Podcast: You mentioned the importance of having these major marquee centers that very few other universities have. And it’s worth noting that UCI also received major renewal grants for its Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center this year, and for its Institute for Clinical & Translational Science. These are considerable achievements for any university, and now UCI is getting know as being a regional center for major institutions in many different disciplines. This has happened mostly in the last five to 10 years. How does the Office of Research help the investigators prepare these really complex, dense and complicated proposals in order to compete for these type of center grants?

Khargonekar: I mean, you put your finger on one of the major factors that leads to success in the current-day research environment, which is the ability of the university to put together complex, large multi-investigator proposals that cut across disciplinary boundaries. And you mentioned our renewal of the ICTS grant, which is an NIH-funded center for translational science, and also the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center grant. Both of these were very complex proposals, and what we did from Office of Research was to work with the faculty team and the principal investigators and say, “you all will do the science as well as is possible. What we want to do is to help you with putting everything together and making it as polished a document as possible.” So, what we did was to provide support in every aspect of grant preparation, other than the scientific content, which has to come from faculty.

And I think we did that exceptionally well with these center grant proposals. When I mentioned to you earlier in this discussion the role of research development officers, they play a big role. They are the colleagues who are not going to be PIs on the grant, but without them doing the work of pulling these proposals together and working with the team and meeting the deadlines and getting graphics done – there’s just so many parts to writing a great proposal today that the work of our research development officers is very, very critical.

UCI Podcast: Also noteworthy was that the non-hard science areas on campus continue to do well. Particularly the School of Education, under Dean Richard Arum, have been bringing in major foundation grants to help understand diversity in education and the best way to teach kids. Foundation funding has become very important to supporting the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and social ecology. How has that pipeline been developed? Because we’re seeing steady growth with these non-federal sources of research revenue.

Khargonekar: I think, Tom, that’s an excellent point. One of the most pleasing things about this year’s performance was how well we did with private philanthropists and gifts for research. We’re higher at the School of Education, but also in the social sciences, social ecology and humanities. I mean, there are many areas on campus that benefit from funding from private philanthropy. It’s a different word than the federal-funding world, and what it requires is having a deep understanding of the missions of these foundations and connecting the work of our faculty with the missions of those foundations. We have an exceptional group of faculty [members] which understand that these different foundations each having their own mission. And then we work with UCI Advancement [to build] the right kind of infrastructure and staff support to help the faculty.

I’m very excited about the work that’s going on in the School of Education, as you think about the COVID-19 crisis and the massive shift to a remote education – and then what comes after. The kind of work that’s being done on understanding learning and teaching in this new environment really catalyzes the next innovations in the future of education. And I’m very excited about what we will learn in the course of the next year, [as we] are building on the data that’s being generated through the remote learning experiment that’s been done nationally and globally. I mean, it’s everywhere. I can just see a transformative change that could occur in the delivery of knowledge and the learning and education, that could have profound impact on the future of higher education. And I’m just delighted that about School of Education is playing a leading role in this.

UCI Podcast: Funding for clinical trials also increased significantly. It’s $70 million this year, which is a 55 percent growth. And this funding is allowing our physician researchers to test the latest treatments and cures, which is vital to improving the health of everyone. It’s really exciting to see UCI start to reach its potential in this important area.

Khargonekar: I give a lot of credit to the leadership in the School of Medicine and [Susan and Henry Samueli] College of Health Sciences with their focus on clinical trials. The research in biomedicine needs to be translated to benefit people. And that happens through clinical research. One of the things we did last year in the School of Medicine was to start the Center for Clinical Research, led by Dr. Daniella Bota. She just brought tremendous energy to the clinical research enterprise and has really transformed it. Also, our Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center has tremendous success with clinical research, because again, in the cancer area, clinical trials are absolutely essential to translating discovery into a benefit for patients.

What’s exciting, Tom, is that this is just the beginning. I feel that clinical research on our campus and in the UCI Health system can really grow much more than what we have seen so far. So, I think the future is very bright in clinical research. I think the need is there. I think the resources are going to be there. And I think we now have the leadership and the faculty to take advantage of it. So, I’m looking forward to continued growth in clinical research – really, it’s more than just the money; it’s really translating discovery to helping people.

UCI Podcast: The strategic goal was to reach $500 million in research grants and contracts. You’ve done that; what’s the next goal?

Khargonekar: The one thing we need, Tom, is to be sure is that we capitalize on this. We have had tremendous growth, and we need to be sure that we consolidate our gains and make sure that this is a very solid and robust gain. So that is the first order of business. But then beyond that, I really think that in many, many areas, we can continue to move forward. We talked about several of them on this call, like the new faculty still not hit their full stride. I think that there are a number of colleagues who have more to do, in terms of expanding their research portfolios. So, I expect growth there. There’s a lot of events that have occurred that can lead to funding in different areas. And so, I think we can continue to grow, and I would look forward to continue to grow within the entire UCI research enterprise.

UCI Podcast: Thank you again, Pramod, for joining the UCI Podcast, which is a production of the Office of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs. I’m Tom Vasich. Thanks for listening.

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