Penn State stands out as 'exception' for team research collaboration

February 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The faculty at Penn State may view their extensive interdisciplinary research collaborations as normal, but it turns out that Penn State’s successful culture of innovation through interdisciplinary collaborations is anything but normal. It is an exception.

In December 2019, a research team led by Steve Brint of the University of California, Riverside published an article in The Journal of Higher Education that evaluated the effectiveness of interdisciplinary research and cluster hiring at 20 universities; the study revealed that despite recruiting top experts in the field, more often than not, the waves of success were just not happening after the hires were made. The study noted that “There are exceptions to this rule. One university in our sample stood out." That exception was Penn State. UC Riverside asked for permission to write about Penn State as that exception.

Penn State Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss said there are several strategies that Penn State has developed to enable successful collaborations. She identified four key points:

1. College deans and institute directors at Penn State nurture continuous and genuine partnerships. Weiss described how "co-funded hires are a genuine partnership between college deans and the institute directors. The hires are not only jointly funded, but the partnerships are founded on working closely to create a shared and joint vision." The relationship extends to managed expectations for research performance, tenure success, external funding awards, time commitments, and grad student supervision and training. Tenure homes are in the departments, but a continual dialog occurs among the deans and institute directors, Weiss said.

2. Institute directors are top scholars in their respective fields. As noted in the UC Riverside paper, institute directors at Penn State are top scientists and scholars in their fields, with established reputations. This is exceptionally attractive to new co-hires, to sponsors and to junior faculty. Weiss explained that “these leaders recognize the importance of ensuring sufficient opportunities for junior faculty that are aligned with the promotion and tenure process, while simultaneously fostering research directions focused on meaningful breakthroughs."

3. Penn State provides professional staffing of shared resources and core facilities. The University maintains a highly effective and efficient approach to sharing resources, equipment, and facilities. "Penn State has dedicated staff who maintain and operate the resources, as opposed to a single investigator or single research group," Weiss said. This enables investigators and graduate students to have more time to focus on research and to foster additional collaborations. The technical staff’s expertise gained on one research project can be shared or adapted to a project in a different discipline. The institute lab directors have also been intentional in creating a strategic approach to sharing resources, equipment, and facilities so that staffing and operating the labs at the university-level allows them to develop broad expertise and to handle the day-to-day management.

4. Penn State provides seed grant funding that is directed from the institutes. "These grants support high-risk and high-payoff collaborations, bold forays into new research directions, and the creation of new partnerships," Weiss said. Grants are monitored with various metrics for impact, including meaningful breakthroughs, new proposal submissions, joint papers and new sponsored research. Early on, large seed grants were a major enabler for interdisciplinary success. Penn State has kept these seed grants in the forefront of its interdisciplinary programs.

A research ecosystem designed for collaborations

Penn State, like its many R1 university peers, touts itself as a very interdisciplinary research institution; former Vice President for Research Neil Sharkey, who retired in 2019, often described Penn State’s seven interdisciplinary research institutes as "the envy of our peers." If Brint’s survey is an accurate reflection, then Penn State really is unique in its ability to get interdisciplinary teams to coalesce. In the latest National Science Foundation's annual Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey, Penn State is ranked in the top ten in 18 areas of research expenditures, in categories ranging from engineering to astronomy to social sciences. No other university in the survey has as many top-ten fields.

The University's practices have supported several successful cluster hires in recent years — practices that may have avoided a common situation where members of a group hire eventually get absorbed into a department, missing out on the magic of truly interdisciplinary work. Penn State's strategy aims to have researchers come into an organization that both expects and strategically supports collaboration. In fact, University administration has moved away from calling them "cluster hires," and has made an unofficial effort among administration to instead refer to them as "strategic hires," underlining an enterprise-wide effort to be intentional with supporting a research mission of teams of exceptionally talented investigators.

Among the successful consortia that were formed at Penn State using strategic hiring is the 2-Dimensional Crystal Consortium (2DCC), a multi-million dollar, NSF-funded program that advances the synthesis of 2-D materials. Directed by Joan Redwing, professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering, and formed within the Materials Research Institute, 2DCC is now a national user facility. The consortium resulted from a small, internal investment and a leadership decision to cluster faculty and resources to expand the discovery and excitement around graphene. It brought together approximately 20 faculty from three colleges and seven departments.

Nurturing the program has paid off: "In addition to the NSF program, we now have a number of companies involved and funding research in this area as part of the ATOMIC Industry-University Cooperative Research Center directed by Professor Mauricio Terrones," Redwing said. She noted that “the small institutional investment enabled clustered collegiality and dialogue well before the NSF announcement for funding. The resulting science and high-quality proposals submitted since then has been astounding."

Another exemplar of interdisciplinary research collaborations for Penn State is the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, launched in 2012 by the Social Science Research Institute. The consortium, led by Jennie G. Noll, professor of human development and family studies and director of the network, now includes faculty from seven departments across five colleges.

In 2016, the network received funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development to launch a first-of-a-kind, five-year study aimed at illuminating the bio-psych-social mechanisms that underlie the long-term negative health consequences of child maltreatment.  In 2017, the network was awarded the first-ever Capstone Center Grant from the NIH for child maltreatment prevention research.  

Noll reflected on coming to Penn State and overseeing a cluster hire team; leadership and vision were among the top ingredients she listed for making sure the cluster hire progressed and had impact. She reiterated that the institute directors clearly have a vision for where the field needs to go, which is a function of having deep knowledge of the field — Noll came to Penn State from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She acknowledged the benefits of having the Penn State interdisciplinary institute directors afforded the decision-making power with regard to hiring and staffing; this strategy of granting those tasks to active scholars in the field ensures that the gaps in the field are being addressed.

“At the end of the day, you want the sum to be greater than the individual parts," Noll said. The strategic vision continues to help drive the new team to "work together on something bigger than their own siloed research; these directors must have an idea of what the field needs," she said.

Noll also pointed out the human element in a happy team: "I think we like each other, as a group. We work well together and genuinely help each other." Fostering a positive team environment can be helped by making sure faculty are not heading toward burnout, providing adequate support resources, and making sure deans and departments understand the benefits of giving members space and time to chase the big, time-consuming opportunities.

Carrot or stick

Of course, administrative and institutional hurdles can nurture or suffocate a new cluster hire.

Both Noll and Weiss noted that hiring the group is only the first step. A successful interdisciplinary collaboration is a huge undertaking, and it is a mistake for a university to make a large investment at the front end to form it, and then not expect it to need continued support.

Administratively, one lesson Noll said she has learned is the importance of protected time to work on the collaboration. She negotiated with deans and administration after the formation of the program to implement the necessary tradeoffs. She said that the University has to maintain a commitment to running the program and providing “the resources to be able to think big.”

A grand administrative challenge

The University’s success in designing a research enterprise that can support interdisciplinary teams was no accident. Former Senior Vice President for Research Eva Pell, who served from 1999-2009, is largely credited with laying down the initial building blocks that incentivized faculty, deans and administration to start working in a less siloed fashion. Strategic programs in the institutes were conscientiously designed in a manner that supported and enhanced the colleges’ research efforts.

The very design of the Millennium Science Complex, which opened in 2012, houses the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences in one wing and the Materials Research Institute in the other. The state-of-the-art building is meant to foster easy physical access to labs, and maybe more importantly, to colleagues working with the institutes. The two wings of the building meet at a center point so that it forms a large triangle, and there is a large common social space, home to weekly talks from scientists in any discipline, which are always well-attended (the free coffee helps, too).

It really does change the field

Nurturing productive interdisciplinary collaborations may be more art than science, and much of it still seems to come down to human factors — that includes the monumental task of getting a large team of leaders to not only believe it can work, but to also agree to work together to grow these kinds of teams. Weiss describes this as “sweat equity,” where everyone involved has to continually work hard to make the collaborations a success. Certainly, Penn State has had a few initiatives fizzle out over the years.

Weiss recognized that to make a difference, we must take risks. She said she likes to quote Adam Savage of the "Mythbusters" in saying "failure is always an option," but she also noted that when leadership has a strong vision of what the field needs, and when it comes together with creativity and exceptional talent, as Noll said, "it really does change the field."

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Last Updated May 18, 2020