The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville ranks low nationally in research and development expenditures, but Vice Chancellor John English is optimistic about the future, saying the trend points upwards.
The UA is one of 146 Tier 1 research universities in the country, as determined by Carnegie Classifications, and English oversees UA research programs. They have been a priority since at least 2018, when then-Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz called for the UA to double what it spends on R&D within three years. R&D has even figured into the UA chancellor search (see sidebar).
The UA had $145 million in 2016 expenditures, from sources ranging from federal and local governments to private donors. That put it at No. 126 for R&D in 2018, according to the National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics. The UA has raised spending since, hitting $165.8 million in 2020. Still, its ranking fell to No. 133.
“Knowledge is not a stagnant domain; discoveries define our future,” English said. “If you think about recent technologies, they all stem from research. Research is fundamental to modern universities.”
English said the fluctuating expenditures were the regular “ebb and flow” of economics and the important data point was that the university was consistently improving. The UA topped $180 million in R&D spending in 2019, and English said 2022 saw a record; official statistics will be released at the end of the year.
“[O]ur trend is steadily trending upwards,” English said. “As a primary example of this, our research awards for 2022 were record-setting, following a slowing of activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we grow in awards, the trend of expenditures will trend up, but there is noise in all data.”
Nelson Peacock, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said improving R&D expenditures requires more than getting grants. There must be a research network, a partnership between private industry and the university, and a system to commercialize research.
“When we set that, that was a stretch goal,” Peacock said of the original goal to double expenditures. “We really had to develop a lot of the infrastructure to get where we want to be. The council believes that this is a missing piece to our state economy.”
‘Hit the Ground Running’
The university is building its new research jewel, the Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research, which broke ground April 1.
The $88 million I3R facility is part of a $194.7 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to promote research to find innovative solutions and bring them to market. It hired Ranu Jung, who has 12 biomedical patents, to run I3R.
“It will not only constitute substantial growth within I3R, but we are all committed to ensure that this growth helps transform the university R&D environment,” Jung said. She said work is already underway on R&D projects “designed to directly contribute to economic development.”
The facility is expected to open by the summer of 2024. Most of the research faculty have not been hired, but when they are, they will bring their own research with them, boosting the university’s R&D exposure.
“Recruiting, retaining and rewarding high-performing professors and research teams as well as modern and progressive research facilities,” English said of the institute’s goals. “This is why I3R will have such great impact.”
English and Jung are part of a triumvirate in the UA R&D world with Mike Malone, hired as vice chancellor of economic development just before the I3R groundbreaking. His team will help translate research into patents and marketable licensure for either industry use or entrepreneurship.
“It creates not only knowledge — and that’s count one of doing research, expanding knowledge to impact the world — but it creates a very knowledgeable workforce,” Malone said. “Doing more research, you have more researchers who are going to invent things and create more business opportunities. It is a virtuous cycle.”
Peacock said continued R&D growth will require a team effort among the university, state and local leaders and the business community.
“We have to have a lot more collaboration and cooperation; it’s the only way this works,” Peacock said. “We have the assets in place. It’s up to everyone to create these environments.”
R&D at the Center of UA Chancellor Search
Research and development has played into the University of Arkansas’ long search for its next chancellor, with the board of trustees split on whether to hire Interim Chancellor Charles F. Robinson or Daniel A. Reed, presidential professor in computational science at the University of Utah.
In a guest column last week in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Steuart Walton, a grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam M. Walton, urged the board to back UA System President Don Bobbitt’s recommendation to hire Reed, citing Reed’s time at Microsoft Corp. and his “direct industry knowledge of how to build a pipeline for applicable and marketable academic research.” Other Arkansas business leaders have expressed support for Robinson, including former Tyson Foods Inc. executive Archie Schaffer III, Dillard’s Inc. CEO William Dillard II and David Pryor, a former UA board member and U.S. senator.
Building “a top research and commercialization institution” “should be a priority for the next chancellor, whoever that is,” Northwest Arkansas Council CEO Nelson Peacock said.
The board of trustees is scheduled to vote publicly on the matter at a special meeting on Nov. 18 if it cannot reach a decision by then.