USC is among the top universities in America in terms of receiving public and private research funding.
But university leaders want to make it even more competitive and better poised to tackle society’s serious problems.
So last fall, officials from External Relations and the Office of the Provost led a drive to form the USC Federal Research Council. Composed of faculty and staff, the council is working to maximize the university’s research funding and to improve the research environment by getting people from a range of disciplines to put together funding proposals.
“By getting a team together and attacking a problem from a number of different perspectives you have a chance of solving some of the really big issues confronting us,” said Neal Sullivan, vice provost for research and council co-chair along with Jane Pisano, senior vice president of external relations.
“If we get that whole spectrum of intellectual talent working together it’s going to give this university a tremendous advantage in this era of interdisciplinary research,” Sullivan said.
The amount of public and private research dollars flowing into USC has swelled steadily since the mid-1980s, climbing to almost $264 million in fiscal year 1998 from $111 million in 1985, according to a recent report. The university received $69 million from private sources and $195 million in federal money in 1998.
In terms of federal research funding, USC ranked eighth among private American universities and 16th among all universities.
While those statistics firmly place USC among the research funding leaders, university officials want to do even more. That’s where the Federal Research Council comes in.
The council consists of 19 deans, professors and administrators representing a broad cross-section of the university, from medicine and engineering to business affairs and contracts and grants.
It meets quarterly and is next scheduled to convene later this month, said Rose Washington, director of special projects for USC External Relations.
“Our finite resources can be used to much better effect and the first step is for a core group of people to have a better fix on what we are currently doing in regard to federal research funding,” Pisano said.
A key goal of the council is to identify new federal research funding opportunities – especially for interdisciplinary projects, Washington said. A parallel aim is to get faculty working together to apply for interdisciplinary research funding, Sullivan said.
This, he said, will have two important benefits.
Interdisciplinary projects tend to receive relatively large amounts of money that are doled out over many years, which allows researchers to do long-range planning, Sullivan said. And bringing together people from different disciplines to brainstorm is the best way to attack society’s big problems, such as the environment, health and earthquake prediction, he said.
Toward this end, faculty from throughout the university are invited to tell the council how they got their research funding – and what problems they may have encountered because of the way the university is structured and managed, he said.
“I think we have a lot to learn from each other, from the faculty who are out there being successful,” Sullivan said. “We’d like the whole university to do a better job of being responsive to the opportunities that the council might be able to identify.”
Administrators like Sullivan and Pisano also keep in close touch with contacts they have in Washington, D.C. to learn about new opportunities and to make sure the university’s name is out there.
Sullivan, for example, last month convened at USC a group from the National Science Foundation, a $3.5 billion federal agency. He invited 430 faculty members from USC and surrounding universities to listen to foundation officials and “find out what makes this agency tick,” Sullivan said.
“If you understand that, understand what their role is in life, it helps make you more competitive,” Sullivan said. “Everyone knows, mutual interests succeed when you’re looking for a partnership.”
The council also hired a Washington representative, April Burke, whose job is to try to get elected officials to support agencies from which universities get research funding, Sullivan said.
Sullivan wants to give the council a three- to five-year test period. Its success will be measured in the number of interdisciplinary grant applications and whether the university is more competitive in getting these grants, he said.
But the council may take on a more global function as well, Sullivan said.
“If we partner with Caltech, UC Irvine or UCSD, that’s good too,” Sullivan said. “To be competitive, you need to work with the best people in the world.”