Universities nationwide are in fierce competition this year to procure a share of scarce federal research funds, and Brown is taking aggressive steps to get its own piece of the pie and enhance its national profile as a top-tier institution.
In the past two years, the University has taken assertive actions to bolster its appeal to national foundations and the federal government — including hiring a Washington-based political consulting firm, forming partnerships with other institutions and promoting its own multidisciplinary research programs.
And the measures appear to be working — the University announced Wednesday it had secured three new awards, including a $3 million National Science Foundation grant. Those successes bring Brown's total share of federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to nearly $20 million.
"The stimulus funding was, of course, a boost coming in," said Vice President for Research Clyde Briant. "Research is expanding. There's no question about that."
The latest awards include nearly $2 million in funding for two state-of-the-art instruments — a high-tech mass spectrometer and a transmission electron microscope — and another $2 million for a new "CAVE," a three-dimensional, automatic virtual environment.
Briant said the University is also attempting to strengthen its image as a research institution by more vigorously developing graduate programs and promoting key departments that best represent innovative research such as Brown's new Institute for Brain Science.
Increased national research stature would not only benefit the University and its researchers, but also the city of Providence, Briant said. By securing top grants, Brown will shape the surrounding area into an intellectual hot spot, attracting leaders in various research fields, he said.
"Brown is an economic engine," he said.
According to Briant, the University gets about 50 percent of its research funding from the National Institutes of Health, with the remaining support coming from the NSF, the Department of Education, the Department of Defense, NASA and private foundations.
"We think there is both a need and a desire for research in society and an opportunity for exciting federal funding," Briant said.
Brown has also recently established a number of partnerships with laboratories and institutions across the country with the goal of increasing the University's national credibility. The University has teamed up with IBM, Draper Laboratory — a nonprofit engineering laboratory — and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., to pursue various research goals. The collaborative efforts also aid Brown in applying for research dollars.
"These partnerships allow us to apply for grants (when) we wouldn't normally be able to," Briant said, though he added he knew of no further partnerships on Brown's immediate horizon.
Opportunity and competition
Between 1998 and 2003, an enormous influx of federal funding for biomedical research doubled the budget for the NIH. But after the spending drive — and the subsequent increase in the number of applicants for newly available grants — the budget "went flat," said Tim Leshan, Brown's director of government relations and community affairs.
In March 2008, Brown and six other research institutions jointly released a report called, "A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk," which highlighted the devastating consequences for researchers who were unable to secure research funding.
But, he added, the stimulus funding has temporarily alleviated the pressure put on researchers by the dwindling amount of money available, making it imperative that the University capitalize on new research opportunities.
"The stimulus has eased normal budgets," Leshan said. Still, the resulting increase in demand for funds has actually decreased the likelihood that many less qualified, but still deserving projects will receive at least some funding, he said.
He said he estimated that just 3 percent of the nearly 22,000 applications for NIH funding would receive money, making it necessary for Brown to redouble its efforts so it does not find itself shortchanged because of the inflated enthusiasm.
"It just shows that there was sort of a pent-up demand for research funding," Leshan said. One of the most important features of the stimulus plan is that it has rejuvenated research across the country, he said. But he said it was unclear what will happen when the federal stimulus money runs out.
"We're advancing quite forcefully because funding for research has not been growing recently," Leshan said. "People have talked about dropping off the cliff again."
One of the most recent tools in Brown's arsenal for increasing its national research profile was the decision — reached in January — to hire the Washington-based political consultant Lewis-Burke Associates, which Briant said has significantly augmented the University's awareness of available research opportunities.
He said the University reached out to the firm to generate congressional support for Brown's research funding after the stimulus bill was approved.
"The number of things coming out was just overwhelming," Briant said.
The company describes itself on its Web site as "a leading, full-service government relations firm specializing in advocating for the public policy interests of institutions of higher education and other research and education organizations." Members of the firm declined multiple requests for comment.
"They're there to help us for the funding agencies," Leshan said, but he added it remained "up to Brown" to convince Congress and the federal government of the merits of the University's various research plans.
"Our congressional delegation has been incredibly supportive of our efforts," he added, referring to Rhode Island's representatives. "Funding agencies are seeing Brown as one of the leading research institutions."
Faculty gear up for grant-writing
To prepare faculty for the arduous process of applying for the newly available money, the Office of the Vice President for Research, along with Lewis-Burke, hosted an online seminar in March to instruct faculty on the best ways to forge connections with funding agencies.
Another obstacle is that research labs sometimes do not have enough money to hire lab technicians and assistants, leading professors to perform their labs' administrative tasks when they could be spending their time seeking and writing proposals for new grants.
"We've done a lot of things to help faculty be as compatible as possible" with the grantmaking agencies, Leshan said, adding that the University, with Lewis-Burke's aid, also plans to begin bringing program officers from NIH to campus to meet with faculty members.
In terms of increasing the University's national profile, Briant was optimistic that more stimulus funding is on the way.
"I think we're at a very exciting time for us," he said. "We're really at a stage where we're building very strongly."