On July 1, Professor of Mathematics Jill Pipher became the new vice president for research for the University, in which she coordinates funding and monitors all research conducted at the University. The office aims to have a university-wide view of research on campus rather than a focus on a specific department.
Pipher outlined three main goals for her tenure: increasing funding for research, expanding commercial engagement and continuing “operational excellence” within her office.
Pipher will face an uphill battle to secure federal funding. Research dollars have remained roughly flat over the last five years, yet inflation and the rising cost of conducting research has meant that budgets for projects have been strained across the board, Pipher said. While Pipher will continue to visit Washington once a month to meet with members of Congress to encourage them to support research funding, she plans on turning more to other funding sources such as philanthropic and commercial institutions. Pipher will also face challenges from other competing research universities that are similarly turning to alternative funding sources, said David Savitz, professor of epidemiology and Pipher’s predecessor as vice president for research.
Pipher’s focus on expanding commercial partnerships and engagement will be aided by the recent hire of Daniel Behr as the executive director of corporate relations. Behr, who has headed the newly created Office of Corporate Relations since July 1, oversees all of the university’s efforts to create and expand relationships with outside corporations. While the university had previously engaged with the commercial sector in multiple departments under Savitz, Pipher has tried to centralize the process. “The mission of this new office is to unleash the impact of Brown’s research by encouraging and facilitating the evolution of Brown discoveries and inventions into products and services that will add an economic value,” Pipher said.
Other universities have expanded their partnerships with the commercial sector in recent years as federal research funding has become increasingly tight. Recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and IBM announced a $240 million partnership to advance artificial intelligence research, one of the largest partnerships between academic and commercial institutions. Though critics have argued that such partnerships undermine the academic integrity of researchers and can create a bias toward market-ready products and short-term projects, both Pipher and Savitz said that Brown attempts to avoid conflicts of interest. While doing research under commercial agreements, for example, researchers must sign contracts guaranteeing that the research will be published regardless of the impact on the commercial partner, Pipher said.
Pipher was previously the founding director of the Institute of Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, a position she held from 2010 to 2016. Under her direction, the institute received both founding and operational grants from the National Science Foundation — establishing it as one of eight NSF-funded mathematical sciences institutes in the country — as well as a number of other grants from both federal and commercial sources. Pipher also coordinated numerous semester long programs, which brought together over a thousand researchers during her tenure.
Brendan Hassett, who took over Pipher’s position as director of ICERM in July 2016, praised Pipher’s long-term planning and coordinating abilities. “When I started at ICERM, there were a lot of things that I thought, ‘Oh, you could never get this to work.’ But she was very persistent and very proactive, and, in almost every case, she got it to work,” Hassett said.
Savitz seconded this praise, adding that Pipher “has a combination of scholarly vision and administrative skills.”
Pipher also brings a unique perspective to the office as one of the few female researchers in STEM. “I don’t think there has been as much progress as I would have hoped in diversity, in science, in academia,” Pipher said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand the causes, to find the remedies, to support women and other underrepresented minorities in (STEM) fields. It’s always something I’ve got on my mind.”
As a first step, Pipher plans on raising awareness of these gaps. “Awareness of unconscious bias and of the implications of being a minority is helpful. There are certain situations in which reminding people that these factors exist can help change the tone of a meeting, conversation or direction that things go,” Pipher said.
Pipher will continue teaching, mentoring and researching during her tenure, serving as a co-professor for MATH 0750: “Introduction to Higher Mathematics” and furthering her work in mathematics.
Throughout her time in various positions throughout the University, Pipher has held one belief dear: “My common thread is my passion and respect for university research, in particular the research at Brown.”