University-based STEM research: A primer


In the United States, most basic research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (the STEM subject areas) takes place in university laboratories, and much of it is supported by research grants from the federal government.

The federal government allocates its research budget among some twenty different science agencies, scattered among the major federal departments, and, with varying amounts of guidance and oversight, allows those agencies to plan more detailed program priorities.  Major U.S. federal scientific research agencies include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  These agencies are mixing bowls, where top-down federal initiatives and priorities result in program solicitations that meet bottom-up talent, ideas, and specific funding proposals from STEM researchers.

The grant solicitation and peer review process encourages researchers to explore new scientific and engineering terrain in the service of social, national, and economic priorities set by the White House, Congress, and to some extent, the advice and consensus of leaders of the science and technology community.  Such endeavors thrive in universities, which are more likely than corporate environments to foster an open-ended atmosphere of creative and intellectual freedom and peer-reviewed publication of approaches and findings.  While some corporate and private laboratories do continue to support basic research, most of them must prioritize their efforts to those projects that seem most likely to promise to their core business a reasonably profitable and short term return on the R&D investment.

University-based researchers are often quite dependent on state and federal grants to provide the specialized tools and equipment required for advanced research. Wealthier universities can also sometimes look to alumni and donors to fund large new laboratories and the necessary infrastructure to attract top faculty and students, as well as new grant funding. Faculty and universities can and do sometimes benefit financially from licensing of the “IP” (intellectual property) produced in their laboratories, and sometimes they generate “spin-off” start-up companies.   Most university researchers, however, are motivated by the freedom to pursue their own research pathways, and the possibility of achieving significant discoveries or breakthroughs that can provide meaningful outcomes.  The rewards include the honor and security of gaining a professorship and lifetime tenure, the opportunity to work in an intellectually-stimulating and creative environment, and the satisfaction that can come from mentoring and nurturing young scientists.  These graduate and post-doctoral students, constitute the primary workforce in research universities, and many of whom are supported by their professor’s research grants as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to establish their own careers.

Research is increasingly interdisciplinary. Universities are typically divided into schools, like schools of arts and sciences, schools of medicine and law, schools of engineering and applied science.  The particular divisions and structures vary from university to university; and, within each school, there may be any number of departments. Traditionally, based on the old European model, universities have divvied up the sciences into distinct disciplines of chemistry, biology, geology, and physics. However, these distinctions have blurred, as the gaps between domains of scientific knowledge have begun to fall away, and more interdisciplinary fields have come to the forefront.  Common examples include biotechnology, climate sciences, and nanotechnology.  The trends for the past couple of decades have also led to greater integration between university science and engineering departments, as the quest for scientific knowledge has become more intimately bound with the development of new tools, materials, and techniques for obtaining and harnessing that knowledge. Many research universities now host specialized centers and institutes that bring together researchers from many fields to address a particular set of interdisciplinary topics; these centers often result from a large gift to the university by a donor, or the winning of a large center award from a federal or state science agency.

Competition for grants and awards is stiff. One thing that distinguishes most science and engineering faculty from senior faculty in the arts and humanities, is that they must continually compete for research grant funding. In order to remain competitive and to attract the best and the brightest students, science and engineering researchers need to secure funding for constant renewal of increasingly complex state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, as well as funding for the students carrying out their research programs.  In contrast to most arts and humanities students who must take out loans to achieve their advanced training and qualifications, science and engineering graduate students are typically paid for their efforts while pursuing advanced and post-doctoral degrees.  In order to succeed, therefore, science and engineering faculty must have an entrepreneurial side – moonlighting as grant writers and submitting frequent proposals for research support, mostly to federal science agencies, though there are some private foundations that also support research. The title used most commonly used for the leader of a grant-funded research project is “Principal Investigator,” or “PI,” which reflects the fundamental notion of scientific research as a disciplined, evidence-based quest for knowledge. A single grant may support portions of time (or “calendar months”) for one to several years of work for a PI and his or her associated students and colleagues; it must be submitted up to a year in advance of the intended start date.  Most funding agencies have strict guidelines, submission policies and deadlines, and rely on a peer-review process for determining which proposals are most worthy of awards.  Peer review panels are made up of investigators in the same or closely-related fields, and they judge each proposal based on factors such as its intellectual merit, significance to the field, experimental design, likelihood of producing useful results, feasibility of budget and timeline, the investigator’s track record and demonstrated ability to manage a research program, broader impacts,and the project’s potential benefit to society. The scientific review process is expensive, time-consuming, and imperfect, but it strives to offer a merit-based approach, largely free of political influence or favoritism.  Investigators who have won previous research awards very often serve as reviewers for new rounds of awards from the same agency. Their service is somewhat expected and it also helps them keep up to date with what is happening in the field.  Besides direct research grants, faculty may also compete for funds specifically designated for training graduate students, developing new curricula, fostering new collaborations, and increasing diversity.

Science is a competitive profession in other ways, too. Research faculty must operate within an atmosphere of competition for grants, tenure, laboratory space, committee placement, prestige, and the job security of fully endowed professorships.  For tenured positions, universities seek researchers who are not only brilliant and widely respected in their field for advancing knowledge through successful research programs, but who are also adept at winning grants and awards, chalking up patents, publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals, attracting students, gratifying donors, serving on committees and advisory boards, speaking at conferences, and attracting good press.  Prospective senior faculty must also prove themselves excellent teachers and mentors, and they must demonstrate an ethos of service to their professional research field, the university, and its broader community.  Despite the pressures to compete, most scientists strive to maintain open sharing and communication of ideas and results and to foster an atmosphere of intellectual and academic freedom.

Universities have internal systems for the administrative aspects of campus research.
Most research universities have offices of “sponsored research,” which set institutional policies governing federal grant proposals and submissions, administrative procedures, budgeting, reporting, auditing, personnel management, and compliance with federal standards.  Typically, prospective PIs must submit proposals and budgets for internal review before they are due at the granting agency. It is not unusual for faculty with adjacent labs to be competing for grants under the same federal program, and to first have to win an internal university competition for the right to submit their proposal to the funding agency.  A university dean may decide that the institution as a whole should not submit more than two research proposals to the same program.

Research center funding is becoming more common.

In recent years, particularly in the context of large-scale research initiatives that require the collaboration of highly interdisciplinary teams, several federal science funding agencies have moved toward the funding of research “centers,” assemblages of teams of researchers and their students, led by co-principal investigators and other senior faculty, with research programs planned and budgeted three to six years into the future.  The center structure is intended to promote collaborative work at the fertile intersections between disciplines, where innovation is mostly likely to take root.  Center funding can spur interdisciplinary creativity as well as empower individual investigators with greater flexibility to shift their focus with new colleagues as the work develops. Centers can sometimes spot and more quickly and nimbly provide “seed grants” for small high risk/high potential projects.  Center students benefit from their broader exposure to a variety of investigative approaches, and the pooling of funds can provide for a more robust menu of enrichment activities, such as graduate seminars, conferences, and mentoring opportunities.

Centers sometimes include research teams from more than one university; geography is not necessarily a limiting factor.  The principal investigator’s university is considered the lead institution and the partnering institutions operate in tandem either through direct collaborative awards or through sub-awards from the lead university.  Centers generally require a governance structure with an executive committee, an advisory board, and internal procedures for allocating pools of discretionary funds, within guidelines allowed by the granting agency.   Center administrators have to file detailed annual reports on their research progress, expenditures, publications, teaching and mentoring duties, and other outreach activities.  Their year-to-year progress is monitored during periodic site visits by program officers and sometimes by review panel members.  Center investigators are also sometimes invited to “reverse site visits,” meaning they travel to the funding agency’s headquarters to present their work, answer critical questions, and receive feedback and guidance.  A following year of funding is never assumed; it must be requested and approved, following a year-end report and/or site visit, and it can be vulnerable to judgments of poor performance and subject to changes in the congressional budget and allocation process to individual science funding agencies.  Nevertheless, most multi-year awards are approved through each year, and five-year center awards are often eligible for renewal for an additional five year term. The NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) have six-year award periods, which have been renewable for multiple terms.

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