Goal Three: World Class Research
Activities that advance Goal 3 are found throughout the plans of CSA departments. Indications of strength in research include the awarding of 5 of the last 8 university research awards to college faculty (2003, 2004, 2007, and 2 in 2008). Other markers of the college’s research strengths are the steadily increasing accomplishments in astrophysics, materials (especially nanoscale science), and biophysics in Physics and the continued production of doctoral students in Humanities, which marked the 20th anniversary of its program in the fall 2009. The unique industrial archeology and heritage program in Social Sciences graduated its first doctoral student in December 2009, while the Mathematical Sciences Department, led by its research activities in statistical genetics, was recognized as the nation’s 75th ranked program in a recent NSF survey.
The college’s primary research focuses mesh well, not surprisingly, with the Strategic Faculty Hiring Initiative launched in 2007-08 to recruit cohorts of new faculty who share common research interests. The SFHI topics– environmental sustainability, computational innovation and discovery, health, and energy—represent existing strengths that will be significantly enhanced by the presence of new faculty—15 total in the first two years alone. It is important to recognize, however, that every hire made in CSA represents a strategic attempt to utilize our scarce resources. Thus the various faculty hired to replace those who have retired or moved to other universities is the other leg upon which CSA expects to move forward its research programs.
It is obvious that in a college that covers as much intellectual terrain as CSA, an array of research focal points must exist. But it is also apparent that environmental sustainability, computation, and health reach across many departments. In the environment area, the newly approved (March 2010) doctoral program in environmental policy caps a wider effort that has included strengthening such areas of investigation as aquatic ecology and atmospheric chemistry. Computational efforts include on-going discussion about increasing the campus’ computational capabilities as well as developing strength in academic areas such as computer graphics, visualization, and digital media. And health is a pivotal area where the university must develop a significant presence if it hopes to realize its strategic plans. CSA sees health as a primary target for the next few years , and to that end, recent hiring has brought five replacement faculty in chemistry and two more in biological sciences who possess research interests in health-related fields.
The new chair of biological sciences, whose career includes substantial NIH support, is an important step toward demonstrating the viability of a path we hope to develop further: attracting faculty who are interested in health research but who prefer a broader educational environment than found in most medical schools. This strategy reflects a realistic awareness that CSA must carefully define targets that fit our strengths and our capacities. CSA, like Michigan Tech as a whole, must employ niche strategies. We are too small to support programs that operate across the entire advancing front of any field of knowledge. A key feature of this strategy is to identify, attract, hire, and retain faculty who are committed to the notion that they are better teachers because of their research, and better researchers because they connect their studies to their classrooms.
The college will devote greater attention to increasing the level of external funding for research. Over the past four years, the volume of funded research in CSA has remained basically flat. The chairs of the college agree with the dean that priority in seeking external funds must come in the area of supporting graduate students. (See the Metrics section and Appendix 9.) So far, Physics is performing at a high level in a number of areas—atmospheric phenomenon, materials, modeling of biological and nanoscale systems, and astrophysics—and Cognitive & Learning Sciences and Social Sciences also manage to do well, especially given the relatively limited opportunities for the support of social sciences research and students. A couple of departments (Computer Science, Biological Sciences , and Chemistry) must be more productive in terms of raising external funds to support research and graduate students. The preliminary steps for growth are currently being set in place, and the college is certain that improvements will come through the efforts of recently-hired faculty who are proving especially active. More work must be done, however, as the possibilities for external funding become increasingly competitive.
The economic situation within Michigan is such that education and research must grow more of its own support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Department of Energy, and other government and corporate partners. The renewal of the Chemistry Department will continue as the four new faculty hired in 2008 and 2009 find their footing, and the reinvigoration of Biological Sciences will gather steam under the direction of the new chair hired in 2009. Computer Science must continue the difficult task of strengthening graduate education and research without diminishing its undergraduate programs; the hiring of three new faculty in 2009 is a good harbinger. Social Sciences will launch an interdisciplinary doctorate in environmental policy in fall 2010, allowing department faculty to assume even larger roles as partners in the increasing volume of research related to environmental sustainability.
And the brand new human factors program in Cognitive & Learning Sciences will hit the ground running in fall 2010 with the arrival of at least two new faculty with strong research profiles. In all of these areas, the college will place additional emphasis upon efforts to secure external funding, with a near-term target of $6.4 million. Top priority will be placed upon securing support for graduate education and research. The primary metric here will be statistical information being developed by the Graduate School.
It is important to recognize, however, that external research funds can provide only part of the foundation required to build stronger research programs within CSA. Grants provide the funds for conducting research, especially the means of supporting the salary and tuition of graduate students. But most funding agencies provide only limited resources for constructing or acquiring the facilities—both equipment and even more importantly the buildings—within which research takes place. These needs as well as gaps in funding for graduate student support, faculty and student travel, and other expenses, are best met with endowments. And here, the college lags badly behind the College of Engineering, from which the great majority of Michigan Tech alumni have earned their degrees. As the Metrics section and Appendix 10 demonstrate, it is vital to develop this foundation for the college, with both annual gifts and the creation of an endowment.
The college believes that its primary contributions to sustainable development and to international collaborations begin by undertaking teaching, scholarship and research in areas that help strengthen foundational understandings of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Paralleling these studies is the need to consider the challenges of implementing sustainable solutions to the world’s problems. As the department plan updates indicate, we will broaden the base of international connections, which generally grow from scholarly collaborations among faculty. Social sciences (industrial archeology in particular), physics, chemistry, and humanities are among the departments whose faculty are most deeply connected to international collaborators, and these linkages will grow.
But as in all things, the college faces challenges in pursuing Goal 3 that stem from its unique educational responsibilities. No other unit has to balance foundational instruction, education for majors, and graduate education and research. During the 2008-09 academic year, for example, mathematical sciences enrolled more than 7000 students, meaning that every student on campus (statistically speaking) took a math class. The college’s faculty embraces this balancing act, seeking always to connect their excitement about their research with their dedication to teaching. The department updates show in greater detail how they are working toward these goals.