University News

Research catalyzes growth in science

By
Sunday, May 29, 2011

About half a decade ago, the Office of Admission realized that while Brown was well-respected in some areas, prospective applicants remained unaware of its other academic strengths.

“It became pretty clear that people didn’t think about Brown and science in the same thought,” said Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission.

The office started talking up science-related resources at Brown to prospective students. Since then, the office has seen a steady increase in applicants interested in pursuing the life and physical sciences, Miller said. When the class of 2011 applied to Brown, 45 percent of students indicated an interest in those fields, compared to 53 percent of next year’s freshmen, according to data provided by the admission office.

The recruitment effort is part of a larger push to bolster the sciences at Brown. In recent years, the University has made growth in the sciences an academic priority, investing millions of dollars in new buildings and planning an extension of the campus dedicated to the sciences in the Jewelry District.

Such changes are closely related to the University’s evolution into a research-driven institution. Research at Brown occurs in all disciplines, but last year the life and physical sciences received roughly 80 percent of research funding from sources outside the University, excluding funding from the federal stimulus, according to Clyde Briant, vice president for research.

 

Culturing change

Brown is deliberately cultivating growth in specific fields. It is significantly expanding existing academic programs in engineering and public health and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration among scientific fields.

The faculty voted last year to convert the University’s Division of Engineering into a School of Engineering, a move that has improved the program’s visibility, according to Interim Dean of Engineering Rodney Clifton. The increase in applicants interested in the sciences has been even more pronounced in engineering — in the last three years, the number of applicants planning to pursue engineering rose by 43 percent, compared to an overall increase in applicants of 24 percent, according to data from the Office of Admission.

The new school is an attempt by Brown to catch up to its Ivy League peers, who all already had schools of engineering. Clifton’s colleagues have jokingly told him, “It’s about time,” he said.

But engineering won’t be the only new school on the block. The Division of Biology and Medicine is currently “putting the finishing touches” on a similar proposal: “We hope that next spring we will be able to declare a school of public health,” said Edward Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences.

The school, which has been in the works for roughly a decade, will be an important complement to the Alpert Medical School, which has an emphasis on primary care and the social determinants of health, he said.

The planned creation of a new school has been accompanied by an increase in BioMed faculty. There has been a net increase of 32 campus-based BioMed faculty members since 2002, according to data provided by the office.

The establishment of the School of Engineering mandates an increase in faculty: a first wave of three new positions in the school’s first three years, with the possibility of six additional new positions, depending on the school’s fundraising success, Clifton said.

There is also a separate proposal for the expansion of Brown’s offerings in “brain science” over the next five years, Wing said. The expansion will “form what we think will be a world-class institute on brain science,” he said. The University is currently renovating Metcalf Chemistry and Research Laboratory, which will open next October as the home of the newly consolidated Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences.

 

Physical growth

A jaunt around campus and across the river reveals Brown’s brick-and-mortar investment in the sciences.

Since 2002, the University has “put over $270 million into buildings for BioMed,” Wing said. These buildings include the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences, laboratory space at 70 Ship Street, a building for public health and the Medical Education Building, which opens this summer, for a total of almost 500,000 square feet of new space for the life sciences and public health, he said. “That’s a big statement about where the University’s going.”

The new Medical Education Building in the Jewelry District will provide a center with an anatomy lab, classrooms and a coffee bar to the 108 medical students who will attend their first classes there when the building opens Aug. 15.

A decade ago, each medical school class included about 70 students, according to data provided by the BioMed website. Next year’s incoming class will have roughly 120 students, a size that will remain consistent in the foreseeable future, Wing said.

Other departments in the sciences, such as engineering and neuroscience, may follow BioMed down the hill, Wing said. The University plans to transform the Jewelry District into an area of collaboration between Brown, local hospitals and other Rhode Island schools.

A close lens on research

Seeking more dollars for research has become a priority for Brown. The past decade has seen a steady increase in these research dollars, according to Briant. In 2001, the University pulled in approximately $102 million in external research funding. Last year, the University received $152.7 from federal agencies and private sources, excluding stimulus funds.

The latest University Resources Committee report recommended additions to current research support in order to “increase and strengthen research activity as a central part of Brown’s institutional mission.” Recommendations included increased staff resources for multi-investigator grant proposals and increased seed funding for research.

The University also recently created the position of director for scientific outreach in an effort to make Brown faculty’s grant proposals more attractive to federal funders. Scientific outreach is “important for researchers who are looking for (federal) grants” because it helps show funding agents evidence of the required “broader impact” of the proposal, said Oludurotimi Adetunji, the new director of scientific outreach.

But research funded by external sources often requires additional funding from the University to cover facilities and administrative costs that are not fully funded by federal grants.

“Research is not a money-making proposition in and of itself,” Briant said, adding that it requires investment by the University. The office of the vice president for research has already grown by six to eight people in the last five years and may soon hire an additional staff member, Briant said.

The federal government provides most of the external money that goes toward research, but the University is “trying very significantly to build our corporate sponsorship and research,” Briant said. In 2009, the federal stimulus package boosted research funding ­— but as those funds run dry, the University is turning to corporate sponsors as another potential source of research money.

Corporate funding is still viewed with suspicion by those who worry about the implications of private partnership.

“We much prefer federal funding,” Wing said. “Drug company funding is always a problem.”

But even corporate-funded research must follow University research guidelines, Briant said. “We watch this very, very carefully.”

The University has also invested in advanced equipment for computing and genetics research. Its most notable purchase has been a multimillion-dollar supercomputer — the most powerful in the state — housed in the Center for Computation and Visualization. But while the University has invested in research, its endowment pales in comparison to those
of many of the top-level research institutions.

“We’ve got to set our goals high,” Briant said. For its size, Brown is “highly competitive” in its areas of focus, he said.

 

Balancing the scales

The increased focus on the “university” in “university-college” has some worried.

While administrators have an eye on Brown’s movements in national university rankings, others view the administration’s emphasis on research with suspicion.  Several community members have expressed worries that moving toward a research institution would displace attention from the primary role of a college: teaching.

Observers also point out that focusing on externally-funded research privileges the natural and physical sciences over the humanities and social sciences, which typically do not receive as much outside funding. But while the sciences have benefited from much of Brown’s recent physical growth, they are not alone: The Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts and the expanding Cogut Center for Humanities are two examples of projects dedicated to the arts and humanities.

Faculty and administrators are also quick to point out that undergraduates benefit from well-funded research labs. The more funding for faculty research, the more opportunities for undergraduates and the better the experience.

“Good instruction and good research go together,” Clifton said, citing the “sense of discovery, sense of creativity” in both.

The University’s encouragement of research is also not a top-down mandate, he said — it supports faculty’s own interests. “Faculty members aren’t forced to do research,” he said. “That’s how they got their PhDs.”

 

The fossil record

This debate is hardly new. The nature of a university is prone to tide-like ebb and flow. In the early 1980s, about 45 percent of undergraduates concentrated in the sciences, Miller said — compared to 32 percent of last year’s graduating class, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

The admission office does not have any particular demographic target for the future, but it does want to “bring science up to the same level” as other disciplines, he said. “I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that Brown’s sciences profile has to equal its humanities profile,” Miller said.

Perhaps today’s developments represent the growth that one English professor predicted decades ago.

In 1971, the chair of the Department of English, Mark Spilka, gained campuswide attention for insisting that funding for expansion of the humanities equal financing for Brown’s new medical school, The Herald reported.

The long-term results of creating a medical school would be a “change in the nature of the university, an imbalance in favor of the sciences, which will perpetuate and increase present tensions and resentments and will drive faculty away from Brown in subordinate fields,” Spilka said forty years ago.

During the height of the Cold War, many universities expanded their scientific offerings in a rush to compete with the Soviets, according to Associate Professor of History Naoko Shibusawa.

We are currently in a similar historical moment. After all, President Ruth Simmons is not the only president calling for increased focus on the sciences — science and math education was a major topic in President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. As Brown fills in the Jewelry District with research labs and expanding science programs, the University’s cyclical changes may be part of a broader national trend.