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Virginia 2020
Science and Technology Planning Commission
Interim Report
December 13 Senior Leadership Meeting
Anita Jones, Chair

 

Chair’s Status Report and Commentary

 

Technology is the largest single cause of change in today’s society. It is not simply that there exist new technology-based products that we buy and use. The technology is changing our society and our culture. Information technology is changing how business is conducted, the buying patterns of the American public, and even our processes of democracy. Soon, tiny sensors and computers will be embedded in every object imaginable – not just airplanes, manufacturing plants, household appliances, and hotel doorknobs, but finger rings, all objects in the home and office, and the human body. And most will communicate across networks. Entire new fields have emerged, such as polymer materials and nanotechnology. Dramatic advances in biology, bio-chemistry, genomics, and a host of other life science areas promise to deliver improvements, possibly very substantial improvements, to our health. Collectively, all these changes are so great and so rapid that they raise difficult cultural, legal, moral, and ethical questions for which we must prepare out students.

Today, thirty percent of undergraduate student-class hours taught at U.Va. are in subjects classified as science or engineering. They are taught predominantly in the College and in the School of Engineering. Many of the student-class hours are taken by students seriously studying science or engineering.

Yet, despite the impact of technology in the world today, students graduating from American universities are often technologically illiterate. The University of Virginia follows national patterns. This must change. U.Va. must educate students to understand technology (and the science and engineering behind technology) well enough to make reasoned judgements about its effect on them and on our society. In some cases, as with the Internet, it will be our graduates who create new companies and new ways for society to operate. They must be properly prepared.

The University of Virginia has long emphasized and been noted for its excellent humanities and professional programs. In this technology-driven era, as the University is poised to begin its third century, it is appropriate to raise the quality of our science and engineering programs. U.Va. expects and is expected to educate outstanding citizens and leaders in a range of areas. They must not only be able to cope with technology, but to lead society as it harnesses the new knowledge and the opportunities that derive from advances in science and engineering. This is a time for the University to strengthen its science and engineering programs. It is for this reason that the Science and Technology Commission is one of the four strategic planning efforts that comprise the University’s Virginia2020 Strategic Planning effort.

The objective of the Virginia2020 S&T Commission is to chart a course to substantially increase the University’s excellence and leadership in science and engineering education and research well before 2020.

The University of Virginia contributes to society and to our nation’s future with two main endeavors. First, U.Va educates tomorrow’s citizens and leaders at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Second, faculty and students perform research, that is, they create new knowledge that moves our society forward. In the sciences and engineering, as in other fields, education and research reinforce and improve one another: the better the research activity, the better the learning experience in the classroom and the laboratory.

Basic research in the United States is carried out in universities. This is truer now than at the start of this decade, as American corporations have reduced their research activities in favor of investment in more immediate product development. New knowledge in science and engineering that comes from university researchers is a critical fuel that fires our economy. Because there is a strong correlation between university research and our economy, industrial competitiveness, and national defense, the federal government funds university research. Today U.Va. has an annual income of about $148 million in externally funded science and engineering research, mostly derived from federal research grants. This work is performed predominantly in the College, the School of Engineering, and in the Medical School, as measured by research revenue.

As a leading public university, it is appropriate that U.Va. build a strong research and education program in science and engineering. As the University moves into the next century, we have that responsibility to our students, to our Commonwealth, and to our nation.

History of the Commission

The Science and Technology (S&T) Commission was formed by President John Casteen in concert with three other complementary Commissions. Each one focuses on an area in which the University of Virginia is not as strong as it can and should be, as the University enters its third century of existence.

The Commission has met bi-weekly throughout the school year in calendar 1999. We have had the advantage of hearing presentations from numerous experts in science, technology, intellectual property, finance, University development, philanthropy, research park development, and administration of research and education organizations of all types.

In addition, the Commission and the President’s office sponsored a two and a half day workshop to which we invited leaders from about a dozen universities. These Presidents, Deans, Institute directors, and faculty explained how their university had made and continues to make a strategic advancement of some form and in some area. They each discussed a specific scientific area, their strategy to achieve excellence in that area, the resources required to field their initiative, the success and failure to date of the endeavor, and the measures and milestones that they used to define success. We learned that our competition is making focused investments in the selected areas of science and engineering. They are taking seriously their obligation to educate technically literate students. They anticipate increased funding from the federal government in selected areas and see that funding as a strategic opportunity to advance. Among the universities represented were the University of Illinois, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, the University of Florida, and Rutgers.

In another venue, the members of the Commission spent part of an afternoon in a dialog with the Presidents of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering. Discussion focused on the future.

We will continue our meetings in the Spring of 2000 and will achieve consensus on a set of recommendation that constitute a strategic plan for science and engineering for this University to execute.

Fundamental Principles

The Commission has a consensus view on some fundamental principles or observations. They underpin our recommendations.

* Our first conclusion is that the University must make choices in order to focus faculty, students, education programs, research programs, and funds on endeavors that will make a difference – in science and engineering and in other areas. The University needs to be comprehensive. It needs to maintain its real strengths, wherever they lie. But this Commission believes that the University must make some strategic choices. We need to achieve world-class excellence in some handful of selected areas of endeavor in science and engineering.

It is possible to achieve excellence in some strategically selected areas. But it is not affordable, and likely not even possible to "float all boats", that is to raise the quality of all fields of science and engineering. And, it is certainly not possible by the year 2020.

* Once the University has made the strategic choice to nurture a particular area, that area will require a sustained investment at an appropriate level (for that particular choice) and for a suitable number of years to attain the excellence that we envision.

* The primary determinant of quality in both education and research is the quality of the people. The University must attract, and must retain, excellent faculty. In the sciences we have seen too many stellar faculty – at all levels – leave the University because they came to believe that U.Va. was not the academic setting in which they could achieve their goals.

The quality of students, both undergraduate and graduate, is just as important. It is the brightest and the best that will lead our society in the future. They should be well prepared U.Va. alumni. Quality graduate students and post-doctoral fellows are essential to the performance of excellent research. It is they who have the time to think deeply about research problems. At every level, the quality of the new ideas that are generated is directly related to the quality of the minds involved.

* Mr. Jefferson’s University has a very special culture and environment, our academical village. This culture is unique to this university and it should be nurtured in the context of science and engineering, just as it is in the humanities. Indeed, many of us believe that information technology, properly applied, expands the culture and spreads the academical village electronically out from the Lawn so that geographic proximity is less a limitation on participation. This applies to our full-time student programs, our citizen scholar programs, our life-long learning programs for alumni, and to our research programs.

* If one compares the many areas of science and engineering, it is clear that some areas will make progress very rapidly in the next several decades – compared to others. Pre-cursor knowledge has been developed and the tools that permit progress have been engineered. The situation in which an area is developing and changing rapidly provides an opportunity for a team of researchers to "make their mark" and to be recognized as excellent. It is much more difficult for a research team to do this in a slow moving, or incrementally developing, area. When selecting areas for growth, this fact must be taken into account. For example, it is clear that the life sciences and information technology are advancing at a very rapid pace.

* The Commission notes that there is a strong multi-disciplinary flavor to many of the most rapidly advancing areas. Information technology and the life sciences are good examples. Both are areas that cut across both department and School lines. For example, both of these areas involve research and education in the College, the School of Engineering, and the Medical School. This leads us to conclude that while our Schools are the natural administrative unit for developing disciplines that are mainly housed in one unit, that strategic investment should be centrally managed. We anticipate that this multi-disciplinary trend will increase rather than decrease, because bringing knowledge from multiple areas to solve a problem frequently brings more leverage to that solution.

* An analysis of the leading universities in most areas suggests that to be truly excellent usually requires a critical mass of faculty that is quite large, for example 40 faculty. While there may be departments that will grow in the future, we envision strategic areas that cross multiple departments and schools. Multi-disciplinary collaborative research is a way to increase the quality, quantity and visibility of the University without growing large departments in field after field.

* In the United States the federal government is the primary source of funds for science and engineering research. Industry performs the maturing of ideas and the development of products, but long-term, high-risk research is mostly performed in universities and not-for-profit laboratories. The nation does not have a comparable program of funding research in the humanities. So, it makes sense for the University to expect a science and engineering research program to have a plan to fund itself in steady-state to the greatest degree possible from external sources. In our recommendations, we will advise that any investment be conditioned on having such a plan and performing against it.

* While once every decade or two, a dramatic change is made in the federal research funding patterns, the federal program generally is stable. It is possible to make some predictions about what will be funded and at what levels. This too should be a consideration in our strategy – not a dominant consideration, but a consideration. Rightly or wrongly, some kinds of science and engineering do not enjoy strong federal financial support.

* Today, there are two serious limitations on growing larger or better quality research programs in this University. They are limitations on laboratory space and the quality of the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. The College, the School of Engineering, and the Medical School are all very constrained in laboratory space, so much so that research proposals cannot be made because there is insufficient laboratory space to do the work. Also, we need to raise the quality of graduate students generally. Many faculty perceive that our graduates are not comparable in quality to our undergraduates. We unfortunately see graduates who stay at U.Va. for a Masters degree, then move to another university that is perceived to be of higher quality for the Ph.D. degree. U.Va. thus loses some of its best graduate students after training them to commence a Ph.D. dissertation.

* In this University are some knowledgeable, creative, and ambitious faculty who intend to build a research program that is world-class, and that produces knowledge that will make a difference to society. These types of people need to be nurtured, and given some opportunity to achieve their aims in the context of the University.

 

Strategic Selection of Areas

The S&T Commission is in the process of considering how areas could be selected, who should do make selections, and how to institutionalize periodic selections. This interim report will not discuss either the process or specific areas.

We note that there are a number of choices. Science and engineering research continues to blossom at extraordinary speed. The dramatic change in life sciences and information science and engineering has already been highlighted. Those are very large areas. Part of the challenge of making a strategic selection involves determining how broad, or how focused, a strategic area should be. We emphasize again that even when focused, many areas with promise are multi-disciplinary.

It is appropriate to ask:

    • What is Virginia’s competitive advantage?
    • What is appropriate for the University of Virginia – today, in Charlottesville, and in the Commonwealth of Virginia?

There are a number of quantitative measures that can be used to describe a science and engineering education and research program. Many of these measures are commonly used across all fields of science and engineering. We have compiled the draft of a Vital Statistics document that quantitatively describes the science and engineering activities in the University today. Measures include:

    • Critical mass of faculty;
    • Computing, laboratory, and teaching infrastructure;
    • Number of students in the education programs, both undergraduate and graduate;
    • Instruction and research space;
    • Papers published and papers cited;
    • Research grant income levels;
    • Industry partnerships – current and potential;
    • Intellectual property potential; and
    • Potential for improvement in scholarly rankings.

In summary, we are evaluating alternatives. We have substantial quantitative measures. We are using this data to compare ourselves with our peers and our competitors, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

 

The Competition

One of the most respected rankings of science and engineering is performed by the National Research Council (NRC) once every eight years. In the most recent ranking which was published in 1995, 274 institutions were ranked on the quality of their doctoral programs in 41 disciplines. At least 22 of our programs are of a kind ranked in 1995. (Note that not all areas in which this University teaches are included in the NRC ranking.) The ranked areas often relate directly to a single department in a university. For each discipline, the NRC published an ordered list of universities.

In each discipline there are a different number of universities that have a department or a program in the area. We normalized the rankings to factor out the variability in the number of ranked universities. We found that almost all of our ranked programs were in the top 50% of programs. That is, if there were 60 ranked institutions, U.Va. was among the top 30. In the words of Garrison Keillor, almost "all of our children are above average".

But, only three programs were in the top 25% of ranked schools. And for some of the disciplines where we have activity, the University was not even listed in the ranking. For the top ranked public university in this country, that is both surprising and disappointing. It reflects a long-standing emphasis of this University on humanities, professional schools, and some other endeavors.

We can learn from our competitors; they can also serve as role models. There are two kinds of role models. At the level of institutions, we will identify some "aspiration peers". These are universities that have the kind of balance between science and engineering and other academic endeavors in the arts, humanities, and professional schools that makes sense for U.Va. today. We will identify several universities and compare our organization, our investment portfolio, and our curricula, using a number of quantitative measures discussed earlier in this report. In some sense this will be a "soft" comparison because our University is not, and should not, be like some other university. The point of considering aspiration peers is to ask if there is something to be learned from them.

 

The peers of critical importance are what can be called "direct competitors". Given a specific, strategic area in science and engineering, our competition is no other than the (say, ten) best university programs in the selected area. In some cases, Virginia restricts comparisons of itself to like institutions, such as other public institutions or to institutions of a like size. In terms of science and engineering excellence, the only useful comparison is with the very best institutions wherever they are found. This is true for both education and research.

Our peers and competitors are investing in strategic areas of science and engineering at levels between $25-500 million in single initiatives. This was demonstrated dramatically in the talks at the Commission workshop. In almost all cases, these other universities have determined that they must make strategic choices and develop strength in a selected area. Some examples include:

  • Stanford announced a $200 million Graduate Fellowship program.
  • Berkeley has launched a $500 million health sciences initiative.
  • Harvard is investing $200 million in genomics and nanotechnology.
  • Michigan will spend $200 million to establish a life sciences institute.
  • Cornell created a $15 million (three year) seed fund for genomics.
  • North Carolina State has developed a $250 million Research Park.

 

Recommendations

This commission has not completed its deliberations. At this interim stage, two recommendations have clearly emerged. They are still being discussed by the Commission and have not been finalized. They are described below.

1. The University should increase substantially its excellence and leadership in science and engineering (S&E). It should develop world-class programs in three to five strategically selected areas. It should invest in those areas at a level and for a duration with the intent that education and research in each area will (relatively soon) be recognized by the world as truly excellent.

Several selections should be made now. There should be an institutionalized process for periodic selection of such strategic S&E areas in the future. Selection, based on merit and the opportunity to attain excellence, should be made by a carefully chosen committee that composed of recognized research leaders among the faculty, not by administrative unit representatives. The current Science and Technology Commission is such a committee. It can serve to help to make initial choices.

Management of the investment in strategic excellence, once a choice is made, should be centrally managed in order to capture the remarkable interdisciplinary opportunities that exist now and will continue to exist in the future. The institutionalized process must be centralized. It must cut across the units. We envision that almost any unit in the University might be involved in a strategic S&E area, including architecture, law, and business. The probability that some areas will involve disciplines in the arts, humanities, and professional schools increases each year.

We anticipate that such strategic centralized choices and investments will complement and further the objectives of the School Deans and the departments.

Selected strategic S&E areas may be within a single discipline or may involve many disciplines.

Each must be an area where there is high expectation that research in the area is at a stage that substantive progress will be made in the near future.

Each area must involve a critical mass of faculty willing to propel the selected area forward. An area in which the University does not now have strength should be built up first by other mechanisms than being designated a strategic S&E area.

Each area must involve a plan for gaining steady-state, external funding of the research.

Assuring that space is available in a timely way for support of educational and research laboratory work is crucial.

2. Enable early, individual entrepreneurial research to develop. Create a seed fund for emerging science and engineering research.

For this report we will call the seed fund the Science & Engineering Venture Fund. It should be endowed at a level so that between $2 – 5 million can be awarded annually.

All awards should be based on merit. All areas of science and engineering should be able to compete in each round. A venture investment may result in building a base that eventually leads to creation of major strategic area. The seed fund should encourage all-comers in science and engineering – individual faculty, or small groups of faculty, working in a single discipline or across disciplines. The Venture Fund should support only proposals for which there is a plan for achieving external support for the research over the longer term.

We envision several different kinds of awards. For example:

  • exploratory awards of about $5 - 50,000 to conduct a workshop or to prepare a large multi-university research proposal.
  • advancement awards of $100 - $500,000 each year for one to three years to advance an established area with the expectation that it could become recognized as excellent.

The Venture Fund should be held and administered centrally in the office of the Vice President for Research. Selections should be recommended by a committee of seasoned, eminent researchers in the University. The Virginia2020 S&T Commission, or a subset of it, could form the initial committee.

The proposal process should be short and non-bureaucratic. It must be scrupulous in that it results in merit-based selections. All proposals should state:

  • long and short term objectives of the researchers.
  • measures and milestones by which the outcomes of the investment can be judged annually for the duration of venture investment. Future year funding should be conditioned on achieving those promised, annual milestones.
  • a plan for making the research self-sufficient with future funding that comes from sources external to the University.

The Venture Fund must not be diluted by having to serve too many different objectives. Rightly or wrongly, the Academic Enhancement Program is viewed by many as having "gone downhill" because it came to serve too many objectives.

Lastly, we need to start this seed fund now, that is, in the first months of the year 2000. We envision this seed fund as the first action of Virginia2020 in the science and technology area.

 

Closing

Our eventual recommendations will define an operational strategic plan. We will chart an affordable course that, if followed, will cause this University to excel in education and research in science and engineering. We envision that this University will move into a new era in which it becomes noted for excellence in science and engineering just as it is in other areas. Our two major objectives are:

  • To produce new, profound knowledge in some areas of science and engineering that will substantially advance society; and
  • To prepare students to lead and to contribute to a society propelled forward on the wave of technology.

 

Status of this Report

This report is in draft form. The Science and Technology Commission has not yet approved it for distribution.

 

 

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