The commission used a set of comparative qualitative indicators, together with quantitative indicators recommended by the commissioners and URI faculty and leadership to assess URI’s current position and formulate recommendations. Goals were to increase the size and competitiveness of URI’s research and development programs; produce a larger, better-trained science and technology workforce; and increase industry engagement and commercialization activities at the University.
The commission found that on most measures, URI lags in building research capacity. Most significantly, URI did not show the same research growth over the past decade that fueled new capacity at other universities. According to the National Science Foundation, federal research and development expenditures increased by 117 percent from 1996 to 2006. URI’s federal research funding grew by just 29 percent, while neighboring public research universities more than doubled their federal funding. By not keeping pace with the overall growth in national research, URI lost market share—even though much of the federal funding received in this period supported research in fields in which URI has a solid foundation of expertise.
Peter Alfonso, URI’s vice president for research and economic development, said that University officials and many faculty are aware of and working to resolve many of the issues that are included in the report. URI has taken several major steps leading to increased research funding from the federal government.
“We were awarded more federal research funds in 2008 than in 2007, and in the first quarter of fiscal year 2008-2009 alone we equaled about half of what we received for all of 2008,” Alfonso said.
In fact, in September, URI reached a one-month record with $20 million awarded to the University by federal agencies. Included in that total are:
• $4.9 million from the National Science Foundation as part of a $12.5 million five-year grant to Dan Murray and colleagues to improve science education in Rhode Island’s middle and high schools
• $3.2 million to Jennifer McCann, a researcher at the Graduate School of Oceanography
• $2.2 million to Jeff Seemann, dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences for the NSF EPSCoR program
• $1.9 million to graduate student Shad Ahmed, chief of the student-run URI Ambulance corps for college emergency evacuation training
• $1 million to Natural Resources Science Professor Art Gold and
• $1 million to Senior Coastal Resources Manager Brian Crawford of the Coastal Resources Center.
A series of critical changes and new research leadership ignited these improvements. URI President Robert L. Carothers’ appointment of Alfonso as the first vice president to head a new division of research and economic development and Alfonso’s leadership in establishing URI’s Research Foundation were the first steps. Alfonso has since appointed David R. Sadowksi, an executive from the National Institutes of Health to the post of assistant vice president for intellectual property management and commercialization, and Oceanography Professor Brad Moran as assistant vice president for research administration. Both appointments are major moves to strengthen the University’s research and none of these or any position in the research division are state-funded.
The URI Research Foundation was established in 2007 to optimize the commercialization of intellectual property and create a more flexible research enterprise. “So we are moving in the right direction, principally by treating the URI research enterprise as a private non-profit organization within the institution.”
Alfonso has described the following as some of the challenges for the URI Research Foundation.
• Other states provide major financial support to the federal research enterprises at their flagship Universities, the State of Rhode Island provides none;
• Unwieldy state policies and procedural regulations in Rhode Island are not encountered at other state universities.
• Rhode Island business/economic limitations. While universities in larger states often receive major support from in-state private companies, the number of companies in Rhode Island that can support a large research enterprise is very small.
“Still, URI has continued to be innovative and aggressive in our attempts to lure federal and private research dollars, and URI faculty have done well in generating revenue from the commercialization of the new technologies and programs that stem from their research,” Alfonso said.
In its report, the commission concluded that URI and state leadership must commit to making bold changes and creating the conditions necessary to significantly enhance research and innovation capacity at URI. In support of this objective, the commission organized its analysis and recommendations around three fundamental issues: leadership and culture, modernization and flexibility, and building research capacity.
To improve leadership and culture, the commission found that URI must do more to develop visionary, experienced champions of research to envision, fund and guide URI’s growth and transformation.
To modernize and become more flexible, the commission concluded that URI must undertake major changes to policies, practices and procedures that currently hinder rather than support research, as well as develop a sustainable financial model for the university to support a stronger research-based institution.
To significantly expand research capacity, the commission has recommended that URI add large numbers of new research faculty, develop new incentives to attract top researchers, aggressively pursue grant opportunities and private sector partnerships to raise levels of research funding, and raise non-tuition revenue to support the research enterprise.
The Commission’s three priority recommendations are:
1. Attract a new president with demonstrated experience in building university-based research capacity, and who is capable of leading a transformative change effort at URI.
2. Create a sustainable financial model for URI that provides university leadership and the Board of Governors with the flexibility to make necessary investments in building research capacity.
3. Jump-start URI’s research capacity with a $100-million public investment through a bond initiative to capitalize the attraction of 20-30 world class research faculty, and to provide state matching funds to catalyze federal research grant procurement efforts.
“The work of this Commission affirms that URI has in its reach many of the essential building blocks to strengthen its current position as the state’s lead public research institution. However, the Commission unanimously agrees that to emerge as a nationally competitive research university, URI must expeditiously make progress on many fronts and that incremental changes will not be sufficient to drive this transformation,” said Commission Chair Flanders. “It was an honor to work with this commission, state leadership and faculty and administrators at URI to create our report and recommendations. Now, we turn our attention to the next step: seeing these recommendations come to fruition.”
“We need to help URI fulfill its potential as an economic engine for Rhode Island. Not only do strong research universities stimulate growth through tech transfer and commercialization activity, they provide access to higher education—an increasingly important aspect of producing workers ready for 21st century jobs,” said Commission member Saul Kaplan. “The work of this Commission confirms that URI is one of Rhode Island’s most important resources and central to our efforts to create an innovation economy that produces good jobs for every Rhode Islander.”
To sustain the effort necessary to bring the Commission’s recommendations forward, STAC is partnering with the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education and has established an implementation committee that will work closely with state leaders, URI leadership and URI faculty to ensure the necessary commitment to making URI a nationally competitive research institution. Members of the implementation team include Commission members James Coleman, Robert Flanders, David Hibbitt, Saul Kaplan, Margaret Leinen, and Commissioner for Higher Education Jack Warner.
The Commission established three specific benchmarks for measuring URI’s transformation:
• Achieve a “Research University/Very High Activity” designation from the Carnegie Foundation by 2015.
• Double total levels of research and development funding in the next five years, achieving total research funding of $140 million annually by 2015.
• Achieve measurable economic impact in Rhode Island through the development of a technology-oriented workforce, technology transfer and greater collaboration with industry.
“We are proud of the work this Commission has completed on behalf of STAC and on behalf of all Rhode Islanders,” said STAC co-chair Clyde Briant. “STAC is committed to partnering with state leadership to support URI’s growth as a research university. All of Rhode Island will benefit if we are successful in this endeavor.