Research Crucial to MSU Success

Thursday, February 7, 2013

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Pious Exponent readers may have recognized a trend in campus dialogue over the past several months — whether it’s record breaking expenditures, a point in the Strategic Plan or a letter of concern, research seems to be on the minds of MSU’s community. So what’s all the fuss about?

Dr. Robert Rydell, Michael P. Malone Professor of History and co-author of “In the People’s Interest: A Centennial History of Montana State University,” claims it all started in 1965 when Montana State College became Montana State University, ushering in a new — and contested — focus on research.

Flash forward to 2010: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching honors MSU with the designation of Research Universities/Very High Activity (RU/VH). This places MSU as a peer to Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and 108 other schools that, out of roughly 4,500 universities and colleges nationwide, were given this top honor.

Rydell attributes the success of those 45 years to the diligence and dedication of MSU’s students, faculty and administration. But more than compensation for the hard work of MSU’s community, this award has brought new opportunities to our university.

Our RU/VH designation affords us the advantage of attracting highly motivated students. Dr. Ilse-Mari Lee, director of the Honors Program, speaks to this, saying students are excited by the opportunity to get hands-on research experience as undergraduates which they may not get at larger RU/VH universities. Lee attributes the fact that nearly 60 percent of non-resident, fee-paying undergraduates are in the Honors Program to the appeal of a school with RU/VH, a liberal-arts style Honors Program and three ski hills to boot.

Beyond our Carnegie designation, Lee believes it is “essential to our mission to create knowledge,” saying that professors and students benefit from actively engaging in research. She feels that participating in research allows students to “learn responsibility and confidence to become leaders in their field.”

Similarly, our reputation for research, helped along by our RU/VH designation, helps MSU attract excellent new faculty. Here we begin to see a more quantitative advantage to our research prowess; along with these top-of-the-line faculty come increased prospects for grants and prestige for the university. Indeed, the recently-set record of $112.3 million in research expenditures demonstrates the progress of the last two years.

This figure of $112.3 million means great things for MSU’s research, but it has larger implications still. Much of that sum comes from outside grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or NASA. This money obviously goes toward research, but attached to every grant is an additional sum of money called Facilities and Administrations (F&As).

Granting agencies provide F&As to fund the infrastructure of research. As Provost Martha Potvin put it, “think about the amount of money you want to ask for, then add 42.5 percent.” Years ago, the Montana Legislature, which had previously collected all F&A dollars, decided to return that funding to the university. With this exchange came one caveat: we had to use the money for research.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (VPR), which collects and distributes the collective F&A sum, has a formula that looks like this: 9 percent to the principal investigator, 27 percent to the department, 9 percent to the college and 55 percent to the VPR office. This distribution provides the colleges and departments with additional resources that they can then put into programs like the Undergraduate Scholars Program, pay for new facilities or put directly back into research.

These F&A dollars serve to fund the cost of current research, but also allow for the creation of new research. “This new chemistry building down here,” said Potvin, pointing out her office window to the Chemistry and Biochemistry Research Building (CBRB), “all of the maintenance and operation for that building comes out of this pot.”

Associate Provost David Singel, who was Head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the time of the CBRB’s construction, said that the VPR “made it very clear to me that this was an investment and they expected a return. They expected grants and contracts … to grow, in a manner that would add new revenues.” From the construction of that building to date, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has added roughly $6 million in research expenditures, continuing the forward momentum manifest in many facets of our university.

Research has become an integral part of the academics and excitement of MSU; but more than that, it is a catalyst for growth and prestige at our university. In this way, the advancement of research at MSU has become synonymous with the growth of student population, outside funding and, perhaps most importantly, with the excellence of our students and faculty.

It makes sense, then, that faculty and administrators alike consider our RU/VH designation and research activities something worth thinking and talking about. Rydell likens our RU/VH status to clinging to the edge of a cliff: “do we let go, or slowly start to inch ourselves up?” Certainly, not all faculty agree with this assessment of our present situation, but the question remains: how do we sustain our growth as a research university?

In the endless balancing act that any university performs, it is crucial to identify priorities. The Strategic Plan, which identifies research-related growth as a major focus, and the letter of concern written to President Cruzado earlier this year by a group of faculty, which expressed concern about maintaining our Carnegie designation, indicate a campus-wide investment in research — perhaps with different opinions on how best to cultivate it.

That conversation will continue and through the ideas and actions of our community, will culminate in changes to policy and appropriations. However, it is important that we consider not just what research brings our university, but what it means for students and faculty to be able to discover and create the technology, literature, theories and ideas of tomorrow.

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