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University of Arkansas Sets ‘Audacious’ Goal for Research & DevelopmentLock Icon

6 min read

Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville knows the goal that he and the Northwest Arkansas Council have set for the university’s research and development funding will be a tough nut.

On July 10, the council released its development strategy for the region and called for the university to double its current funding level of $145 million in the next three years. Steinmetz served as the presiding co-chair of the nonprofit council from July 2017 to July 2018.

In 2015, the council began to compare northwest Arkansas to a more competitive alignment of regions that included Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle of North Carolina. On one metric in particular northwest Arkansas falls noticeably short of its peer regions: the university’s research funding levels.

The University of Arkansas’ $145 million pales in comparison to the universities in its peer regions. Three universities — the University of Wisconsin, Duke University and the University of North Carolina — received more than $1 billion in research grant funding in 2016.

The UA also trailed, significantly, the University of Texas, North Carolina State and the University of Iowa. If the university were to double its funding, it would still trail the University of Iowa’s 2016 levels by nearly $100 million.

“Part of the thought about setting the goal was to take a look at universities we want to be competitive with and areas we want to be competitive with and saying overall, what are their research expenditures in the university?” said Steinmetz, who became chancellor at the UA at the beginning of 2016.

“We have been lagging behind for many years in that area, so the goal of doubling that takes us into the range of $300 million. That is what I would call an audacious goal. It’s actually a big stretch goal for us. I think it is attainable in some frame of years. It will be tough to do it in three years, but we’re really willing to put that out as a goal.”

Investment Dollars
The majority of UA’s research funding comes from government sources; 35 percent came from state and local governments and 28 percent from the federal government.

Just 7 percent came from industry sources, a situation Steinmetz and Council CEO Nelson Peacock believe presents a great opportunity for expansion. The council is an organization that includes representatives from many of the region’s top businesses, and Peacock said that a “better dialogue” between industry and university officials will create more funding.

The UA named Stacy Leeds the vice chancellor of economic development on July 11, the day after the council released its strategy guide. Leeds, who was unavailable for comment because she was in Africa, will be the university’s liaison with the business community.

And on Tuesday, the university named Daniel Sui vice chancellor for research and innovation. Steinmetz said in a news release that Sui would take a “lead role” in improving the university’s research and discovery program.

“Surprisingly, there isn’t that back-and-forth dialogue the way it needs to be,” Peacock said. “Most of the dialogue over the years has been fundraising. This is going to be [Leeds’] role, to increase that dialogue so businesses understand what the university has to offer, what it can do as part of its land grant mission to support local and statewide economic development.

“Our companies are competing against the best in the world, right? It’s international competition, so we as a region and a university can’t expect any company to do a research project with them if it’s not world class. The business community has to communicate its expectations and what it is going to need in the future, so the university can be there to fulfill that role.”

Peacock said studies have shown that areas with universities that invest heavily in research benefit from that investment. He used the University of Utah in Salt Lake City as an example. In 2001, the state made a focused effort to increase research funding at the university, and the state now ranks No. 1 in economic outlook and No. 2 in personal income growth and is the fastest-growing technological state, Peacock said.

The state has a population of 3 million, similar to Arkansas. Its GDP has doubled and it saw 6,500 new technological companies and 28,000 jobs created, Peacock said.

“We’re not saying we need to compete with Harvard or UC-Berkeley or Stanford, but the University of Utah, which made this decision 20 years ago, we think we can get there to compete with them,” Peacock said.

Where’s the Cash?
The obvious question is where can the university find the money to fund more research on campus.

Collaboration with regional and state businesses is one clear answer, but Steinmetz said hiring research-focused faculty is another. The university has seen its enrollment steadily increase in recent years and expects 28,000 students this year, and Steinmetz said it is time to combine teaching with more research.

“It’s not that we’re so dismal and far behind but more that we can do a lot better,” Steinmetz said. “We have put a lot of resources and attention and time into making sure that [enrollment in] the university is strong, and we’re capable of serving the students that we have. I don’t think we have made enough investment over on the research side and the infrastructure that is really necessary to grow research. That is what we are about to do.”

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Steinmetz said the university is looking into ways it can support and assist faculty when they apply for research grants, either from government sources or industry ones.

“It all starts with the faculty,” Steinmetz said. “We make sure we hire new faculty that when they come in are innovators and have great ideas and are willing to build research programs that can go after the funding.

“Second of all, when you have that faculty on board, you have to make sure you support them early in their career as well as when they develop their career as researchers and scholars and discoverers of knowledge.”

Steinmetz said the eventual benefits to the university and community will be cyclic. Innovative faculty doing robust research will attract more faculty doing more robust research.

“The prominence in part of a university is based on the quality of the faculty that you have,” Steinmetz said. “You attract good faculty to the institution and then in the end, that has a reputational component to it that helps us on the national stage to be recognized as a leader. All of that is great for the state to have a flagship university that does a great job of educating students and, at the same time, does a great job on the research and discovery side.”

Peacock called the research goal a “grassroots investment” because all that research will lead to creation of companies and jobs as it did in Utah. It’s a better long-term bet, he said, than trying to attract established companies to move to the area.

“This is not about spending money. This is an investment,” Peacock said. “You need that kind of talented researchers and creatives to help grow the economy. If we can create that type of ecosystem, you’re going to see other companies rise up. Grow it from the grassroots up is the right approach for us.”

Research & Development Funding, 2016
Universities in northwest Arkansas’ peer regions

School Amount Region
University of Wisconsin $1.16 billion Madison
Duke University $1.05 billion Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina $1.04 billion Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
University of Texas $621 million Austin
North Carolina State $489 million Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
University Iowa $473 million Iowa City*
University of Arkansas $145 million Northwest Arkansas
Drake University $1.1 million Des Moines

*The University of Iowa isn’t in the Des Moines, Iowa, peer region but was included as a state flagship representative.
Source: National Science Foundation

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