Tackling the Grand Challenges

University investment coupled with homegrown talents helps UND take on some of the world’s greatest societal issues

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 latter half of 2018 was nothing short of dizzying.

The media headlines, alone, told only 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 2018.

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?

University research leaders note that UND certainly is doing well in challenging times, but it still is difficult out there. But a continued focus on investing in Grand Challenges has helped UND buck the trends.

Various internally funded research seed programs also awarded UND researchers and scholars nearly $4.5 million, in 2018, 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 human health, energy and sustainability, rural health and communities, as well as autonomous systems and Big Data. That amount, alone, came close to the $65 million UND tallied in total external research in 2017 — a number that also included non-Grand Challenges awards.

What UND is dong may be strategic but it’s certainly not rocket science. The University has simply recognized what it does well and has aligned those foci with the needs of the state and available governmental and private-sector funding.

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 human health 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 that it has skin in the game, but even more investment in research from the state 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 been between $100-110 million, and generated an estimated $300 million in economic activity.

UND research leaders say that 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.

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.”