Trustees shown strategies to strengthen Penn State’s research enterprise

September 16, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s multi-dimensional approach to research has allowed the University to experience steady growth and to remain aligned with national priorities in a variety of research areas. 

Lora Weiss, senior vice president for Research, presented “Strategies for Strengthening the Research Enterprise at Penn State” to the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Academic Affairs, Research and Student Life meeting today (Sept. 16). 

After providing committee members with an update on research-related activities, Weiss addressed key strategic questions previously raised by the committee. 

Sharing an overview of Penn State’s research success to date, Weiss cited 35 years of steady growth culminating in a record $1.01 billion in expenditures in FY2020. She also pointed to a 9.1% increase in awards for FY2021, for a record total of $786 million, and recognized the breadth of the University’s external sponsors, including federal and state government, corporate and industry sponsors, and foundations.

This broad support, Weiss said, is a reflection of the University’s alignment with national research priorities, including fundamental research, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, additive manufacturing, and 5G technology, as well as climate science, national security, health and wellness, and biotechnology. She also stressed Penn State’s commitment to STEM racial equality and touted the world-class caliber of the University’s major research facilities and the strength of its Interdisciplinary Research Units.  

“Penn State is distinguished by a multidimensional approach to research,” she told the committee. “Our interdisciplinary institutes provide a unique advantage, facilitating and amplifying collaborations among researchers across colleges and campuses, and fostering excellence in graduate research as well as unparalleled opportunities for our undergraduates.”

Following this overview, Weiss addressed four key questions regarding strategies for strengthening and expanding the research enterprise:

1) What are the crucial strategic steps needed in the future to continue Penn State's growth in research and development?

Weiss stressed the importance of sustained strategic investments, including seed investments in support of bold forays into new research directions, rapid response to emerging needs, high-risk, high-payoff ideas and collaborations, and ideas too early for sponsors to fund. 

As examples of success in this area she cited the University’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with $2.4 million in seed funding yielding more than $11 million to date in external awards, and important contributions in biology, social sciences and medical devices. She also pointed to the Consortium on Addiction and Substance Abuse, with a portfolio addressing prevention, treatment and recovery programs supporting affected families across the commonwealth.

“We have to recognize that our research ‘product’ is our brain trust,” Weiss said. “High-quality research attracts diverse students, faculty and funding, and generates societal impact and advances.”

2) Is Penn State maximizing its ability to monetize the research enterprise and what would it take to do more?

Weiss outlined several steps under consideration or already in progress. These include strategic investments to generate more intellectual property; strengthened communications efforts to “brand” Penn State research; redoubling efforts in research commercialization; tasking the Penn State Research Foundation with updating the University’s research vision and mission; and the continued activities of the Invent Penn State initiative to foster a continuing pipeline of inventions.

“We have more than two dozen startup companies in the pipeline, resulting from research activities at Penn State, and since 2015, we have indirectly supported more than 2,500 jobs,” Weiss stated. She noted all of this technology transfer is a direct result of the University’s research innovations.

3) Do faculty feel properly supported in all the important areas impacting research initiatives?

“With additional requirements for compliance, training and reporting, the faculty burden continues to increase,” Weiss acknowledged. Nevertheless, she said, faculty recognize and appreciate the value of the interdisciplinary research institutes, seed grant programs and other support for collaboration.

“We have created a committee to explore how to reduce faculty burden,” she added. The committee is reviewing areas such as HR processes, enterprise software, communication of policy changes, risk management, purchasing and procurement. Additional task groups are looking to improve the process for industry contracting and other processes.

4) What types of efficiencies are there related to overhead costs and what do overhead costs support?

After providing a breakdown of the many activities and facilities that overhead costs support, Weiss enumerated several steps taken to streamline processes and gain efficiencies. Among these are creating pooled staff support for smaller colleges processing pre-award activities,  merging of positions, and redefining positions and responsibilities for administrative staff.  

“Gaining efficiencies is not a one-time event. Instead, we continually review our processes and streamline along the way,” Weiss said. 

In summary, Weiss reminded committee members of the multi-faceted value of Penn State research, which attracts leading faculty and industry investment, solves real-world problems, provides students with cutting-edge experiences that enable successful careers, and is crucial to the University’s standing among the Association of American Universities, Big Ten and other world-class institutions. 

“Universities have become the country’s innovation centers,” Weiss said. “Our research drives progress in the commonwealth, the nation and the world.”

Last Updated September 16, 2021