Reaping the fruits of seeds sown

University investment coupled with homegrown talents lead to growth in external research funding

Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Jonathan Geiger.

UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Sciences Jonathan Geiger recently received $2.3 million for his laboratory to research epilepsy. Geiger’s work and that of many others at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, are attracting large federal grants to support research in the University’s health-related Grand Challenges. UND archival image.

The amount of research funding UND has attracted from external sources — mostly federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health — in the last month has been nothing short of dizzying.

The media headlines, alone, tell part of the tale.

$2.3 million for the laboratory of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biomedicine Dr. Jonathan Geiger to research epilepsy.

$3.5 million to Charles Gorecki at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) to study geological storing of carbon dioxide.

$3.8 million to Thomasine Heitkamp, in the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, and her interdisciplinary team from several colleges, to continue their fight against opioid and other substance abuse on the Northern Plains.

And the granddaddy of them all was $20.3 million to Dr. Marc Basson and his team at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) for cancer research.

In fact, there was a one-week period in late August when just the research grants and contracts that made blips in the media totaled more than $30 million.

That slice doesn’t include the millions in external funds garnered in the months prior by these and other on-campus research entities, such as the newly launched Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), which is competing with entities around nation to be the next big thing in drone technology research.

UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), alone, had nearly $44 million in research awards for the fiscal year that ended in June.

Springboard funding

So, in what is supposed to be an environment where federal research granting agencies are playing hard to get, what is UND doing now to buck the trend?

Grant McGimpsey

Grant Gimpsey

“We are doing well, and it certainly still is difficult out there,” noted Grant McGimpsey, UND’s vice president for research and economic development, “but we’ve identified our Grand Challenges and we’ve invested in them, in a variety of different ways, and we are being more successful in bringing in more funding as a result.”

Various internally funded research seed programs have awarded UND researchers and scholars nearly $4.5 million, to date, to ignite their work.

That springboard funding, used to draw up grant requests and other administrative prep work, has attracted more than $50 million in external and other sourced funding in areas tied to UND’s Grand Challenges to support society-enhancing research in biomedicine, energy and sustainability, rural communities as well as unmanned and autonomous systems and Big Data. Total external funding garnered by UND in 2017, including non-Grand Challenges awards, was $65 million, McGimpsey said.

What UND is dong may be strategic but it’s certainly not rocket science.

“We’ve recognized what we are doing well and we have aligned those things with the needs of the state and where there’s available funding … and because they will have an impact,” McGimpsey said.

These investments and other high-tech infrastructure upgrades by UND are a big deal, but the resulting returns (nearly 12 to 1 in Grand Challenges funding) are even bigger.

“The notion that it takes money to make money applies to the pursuit of academic grants as much as it does in the business world,” said Basson, senior associate dean for medicine at the SMHS and, and along with Colin Combs, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, co-champion of UND’s biomedical sciences Grand Challenge. “That’s why it is so critical that the University be able to continue to invest in growing and fostering the research of its faculty.”

Skin in the game

Clearly UND has demonstrated it has skin in the research funding game. Now the University has joined North Dakota’s other research-intensive school, North Dakota State University, in a request for more investment from the state to augment what they’re already doing at home.

The joint proposal seeks $100 million over two years ($25 million per year for both institutions) to bolster on-campus research at both schools.

New state investment would help UND close in on its goal of attracting roughly $120 million annually in research expenditures by 2022. The past two years, UND’s research expenditures have hovered around $100 million, and generated an estimated $300 million in economic activity.

But even more than meeting goals, as UND President Mark Kennedy has touted, a significant state investment in research could ignite much needed economic diversity to help insulate the state from the wild cyclical swings of economies built on oil and soil.

Mark Kennedy

President Mark Kennedy

“This will indeed impact the future of North Dakota in very positive ways,” Kennedy said. “This kind of exciting research is good for UND, good for Grand Forks, good for North Dakota and good for the country and world – and we want to do more of it.”

One need only look to Texas and what it’s been doing with its two largest research universities — the Flagship University of Texas and its land-grant school Texas A&M – for the past 142 years.

That’s when the Lone Star State, another area with significant deposits of mineral and other natural resources, established a “Permanent University Fund.” In the current biennium, alone, the endowment distributed $1.2 billion to the University of Texas and nearly $600 million to A&M.

UND economist David Flynn noted a common theme among the nation’s most successful economic clusters — from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle – and that is a significant public investment that leverages the surrounding private sector and vice versa. And public universities are the primary driver of innovation in these areas.

“All of these clusters are public-private in nature; the private leverages the public and the public leverages the private,” Flynn said, echoing a decades-old theory of famed Harvard economist, Michael E. Porter. “With UND’s Grand Challenges, you have the opportunity to create these kinds of clusters.”