Goal 2: Scholarly and Creative Activity
Growing Research and Scholarship by Instituting Institutes, Centers, and Core Facilities
Lead: Jack McIver, Vice President for Research
Goal 2 of the Strategic Action Plan is: Achieve excellence in scholarship and creative activity through an institutional culture that values and promotes strong academic areas and interdisciplinary collaborations among them. Four innovation proposals outlined ways in which the university can expand and improve its research and scholarship enterprise. Building on national models and Idaho’s own culture and responsibility as the state’s international land-grant research university, the authors argued for expanding knowledge, creating efficiencies, and maximizing research and scholarship impact through better structures, facilities, and procedures that foster interdisciplinary work. The authors noted – albeit from varying vantage points – that we can be more effective in our scholarship by establishing high performing institutes, centers, clusters, and core research facilities. Concepts from each of these innovation proposals will be folded into a comprehensive series of actions led by Vice President for Research Jack McIver.
Institutes and Centers
For the University of Idaho to successfully compete with other universities in basic research, as well as solve some of society’s complex and vexing problems, we must be more integrated in our collaborations. Currently, we have a set of research institutes and centers that, while enjoying a good deal of success, are not the product of a coherent set of policies and procedures to ensure their ongoing effectiveness.
One step to improve the success of our research and scholarly activity is to develop clear rules for the establishment, management, assessment, and dissolution of institutes and centers. We, like many universities, are good at starting such research groups, but often do not have mechanisms in place to assess their ongoing effectiveness, make continuous improvements, or ultimately close them and reallocate the resources to new, potentially more productive projects.
Academic Research Clusters
Jan Boll, Ron Crawford, and their colleagues wrote a related innovation proposal and suggested that the university restructure around academic research clusters. Such clusters would provide for the establishment of key research areas in a flexible format that allows for the creation, growth, decline, and dissolution of research areas. This proposal offered a more radical transformation of the university’s structure and function, with an accent on multidisciplinary scholarship and graduate education.
Gary Williams and his colleagues suggest a parallel need to integrate undergraduate education across the disciplines, in addition to research and scholarly activities. While we have chosen to instead follow more closely Dr. McIver’s proposal to address many of the same issues in our next steps, Boll, Crawford, Williams and their colleagues have proposed important and far-reaching ideas that will continue to be considered as our innovation processes continue to move forward.
Their proposals call into question the fundamental structures of the university and suggest that if we truly want to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and outputs, we need a more flexible structure focused on interdisciplinary scholarly and creative work, as well as teaching and learning, rather than traditional research and degree production. This brings into question some of the fundamental college and department structures that we have had in place for decades. It also has implications for individual position descriptions, potentially suggesting the need for many more joint appointments across colleges or transdisciplinary units. This fresh examination of how we operate within the goals of the strategic plan is fundamental to our success in the future. As such, we need to continue the discussion that these groups started. Do we have the right number of colleges? Should some be combined to foster greater collaborations to address key research issues? Should we have colleges and departments, or are there other integrative structural forms that would allow us to better attain our goals? We ask that Dr. McIver and his colleagues continue these discussions as they undertake the stepping-stone task of Instituting Institutes. We will also undertake these questions with others across the university including the Faculty Senate, Provost Council, Staff Council, and student governments.
Proposed Research Units
The establishment of two research units was proposed in the RFI process: The Idaho Institute for Bioenergy and Bioproducts Research at the University of Idaho, Jon Van Gerpen et al; The Academy of the Environment at the University of Idaho, Steven Mulkey et al. Implicit in each of these proposals is the desire to overcome barriers to collaboration also identified in the McIver, Boll and Crawford, and Williams proposals. In the Mulkey and Van Gerpen proposals, an underlying theme is that there are dramatic and complex problems facing society. The authors point at critical energy and environmental issues that have far-reaching implications. In all of the proposals, there is an implication that our existing college/department/institute/center structures are inhibiting the realization of the interdisciplinary scholarly and creative activity needed to address these complex societal problems.
The Mulkey et al. proposal focuses on building a broadly integrated academy of faculty from nature- and human-focused disciplines to systemically research and apply findings on environmental sustainability. We have the human capital to make major contributions in this area if we can integrate the talents across disciplines such as law, business, design, planning, social sciences, humanities, agriculture, natural resources, engineering, and basic sciences. In fact, our small size, relative to other large universities, our strong faculty base, and the diversity of our natural and social environments across Idaho give us many competitive advantages in this research area.
In the spirit of this proposal, this spring Dr. McIver brought together two diverse groups of scholars from across the university to develop National Science Foundation proposals for the long-term assessment of urban/rural development and agricultural sustainability. Those teams, in many ways, form case studies for the integrative structures suggested by Mulkey et al. This work, in addition to that done by Dr. McIver as he pursues Instituting Institutes, should lay the groundwork for more effective and efficient structural forms.
The Van Gerpen proposal also draws on broad and long-standing strengths of the university in the areas of bioenergy and bioproducts. As the world struggles with issues of sustainability, alternate carbon-neutral energy sources must be developed. More than two dozen University of Idaho researchers have been doing research in a wide range of agriculture, science, public policy, and business areas. Again, developing an effective multidisciplinary team to address critical societal needs, and building on the strengths of our faculty and the unique resources of Idaho will allow us to be successful in winning grants, performing high quality basic and applied research, and potentially building new, green industries for the state. A good deal of this work can dovetail with our existing work with our Center for Advanced Energy Studies (in this inaugural year has won more than $10 million in grants and contracts in partnership with Boise State University, Idaho State University, and the Idaho National Lab), Waters of the West, Idaho Water Research Institute, National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technologies, and the soon-to-be-established Livestock and Environmental Research Center.
Once again, for this Institute to be appropriately established, grown, assessed, and transformed, we need policy and operational standards that foster success. We ask Dr. McIver to develop the ground rules for institutes and centers, and then assess the efficacy of the Van Gerpen et al. proposal; a proposal that addresses critical issues, builds on key Idaho and University of Idaho strengths, but that needs an established set of operating principles before being undertaken. We ask that he also consider how the themes from the Mulkey, Boll and Crawford, and Williams proposals be implemented.
In the Interdisciplinary Visualization Synthesis Initiative, Alistair Smith et al. suggest the need for a core facility to support all aspects of the university’s strategic directions in this interdisciplinary area. They rightfully note that a core visualization lab would allow students to participate in engaged learning, allow faculty to sharpen and explore new ways of literally looking at their research, and support all of our faculty, staff, and students interacting with the world around them in very new and exciting ways.
This proposal builds on substantial faculty and staff strengths from many sectors of the university. In fact, it was the product of the innovation review team bringing together six pre-proposals dealing with related topics. They identified the need for a sophisticated lab, with strong support personnel, to facilitate the effective use of visualization tools that could be used from the nano- to the macroscale in many aspects of teaching/learning, scholarly/creative activity, outreach/engagement, and the transformation of our structure/culture/climate.
We concur and believe this is a prime example of the opportunities that are immediately in front of us if we can pull together our substantial, but disaggregated, talents and resources into a highly functioning center. Such a center could help write grants or form partnerships with colleagues around the state (e.g., Idaho National Laboratory, Center for Advanced Energy Studies, Urban Design and Research Institute, etc.). We concur that such a core laboratory is critical to our long-run research and scholarly activity.