Research gets a boost
$125 million effort targets lab space,
faculty recruitment and retention
By Dan Heuchert
The University’s five-year, $125.6 million push to boost its research standing is shifting from planning to action mode.
In October 2003, the Board of Visitors approved the initiative, which combines aggressive faculty recruitment and retention efforts with the construction of new laboratory space.
“The quality and level of research activity is important to the reputation of the University, said Vice President and Provost Gene Block. “If you think of the products of a University, first of all is the training of students, and there’s no substitute for vigorous research. And there’s also the creation of new knowledge, which is crucial for society.”
The University’s current charter campaign for greater freedom from state regulation, if successful, would boost the research initiative, Block said. Streamlining the capital construction process would make it easier to build lab space; budget stability would make planning easier; and control over finances allows the University to maintain competitive faculty salaries.
“This is not one of the places where one thing stands out for you, where — ‘bam!’ — this makes a big difference,” Block said. “It’s more like a series of little things.”
The competitive world of research moves quickly, and deregulation would give the University “more fluid ability to operate,” said Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies.
Block and Gomez have targeted 10 National Academy-level researchers for recruitment and plan to start approaching them in the near future, with the goal of hiring two or three top researchers per year for the next five years, they said.
“We are interested in building upon the strengths identified in the [Virginia] 2020 planning process,” Block said. “We are also open to building on other strong programs that have emerged since the original planning process.”
Two more research buildings are in the pipeline. Construction of one, dubbed “MR-6” — for “medical research building six,” to house research on cancer, plus immunology and infectious diseases — will begin this summer, backed by a mix of $24.2 million in state bonds and $20 million in University funds.
Planning for an Advanced Research and Technology building, slated for the Fontaine Research Park, is well under way and an architect is being sought, Block said. He expects the building, with a price tag of about $38 million, to house researchers in imaging, organogenesis, and computational biology and aging, with an eye to fostering interactive work.
In all, nine research buildings are needed during the next dozen years, Block said, including an “MR-7” and new facilities for psychology, life sciences, information technology and biomedical engineering.
Alongside the major recruitment push, Block and Gomez were quick to say that retaining current University faculty remains a high priority. Included in the research initiative is an effort to boost U.Va.’s faculty salary ranking to between 15th and 18th among American Association of Universities schools. (The next AAU rankings are expected in April.)
“We’ve been trying to work together to make sure we retain our good people,” Gomez said. “We have managed to prevent what would have been serious losses.”
“We lost a few, but responded aggressively to poaching,” Block agreed.
One aspect of the retention effort is to try to identify and reassure promising young researchers at the “most vulnerable” phases of their careers, Gomez said — just before coming up for tenure review, when they have established a research program but are unsure of their long-term prospects. Some decide to leave before the University has a chance to respond.
Established faculty members are more likely to attempt to negotiate with U.Va. before departing, he said.
Current faculty also have been included in the effort to recruit top researchers. A call for input generated 150 nominations of prominent researchers to target — whose curriculum vitae fill four large binders in Block’s office.
Those 150 were first winnowed to 30, and finally to the current “top 10” list.
“We’re looking for excellence, very prominent people,” Gomez said. “National Academy-level is one way to say it.”
“We don’t exclude younger people who are on that kind of trajectory,” Block said.
The targets themselves have not yet been contacted, but U.Va. has notified other universities that it is in the market to move up. That does put the other insititutons on the defensive, but also serves to boost U.Va.’s reputation in the academic community, Block said.
“Like everything else, to get the first one is a little harder, especially when you don’t yet have all of the buildings you want,” Gomez said.
“What makes it easier is the faculty we already have here,” Block said. “It’s certainly not a wasteland.”
In one recent survey, U.Va. ranked 45th among research universities in federal research and development expenditures, at $152.4 million in federally sponsored research activity. The top five: Johns Hopkins ($1.02 billion), the University of Washington ($487 million), the University of Michigan system ($444 million), Stanford University ($427 million) and the University of Pennsylvania ($398 million).
Rankings may be important in luring graduate students and faculty, Block said. But, “we can’t live for the rankings. We have to live for quality research, and hopefully the rankings will follow.”