A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Building a Research Enterprise

By Colleen Kearney Rich on April 1, 2009


Each day on Mason’s campuses, researchers and scholars are making discoveries, seeking answers  to scientific questions, and creating new works.

Last year, George Mason University was awarded $90 million in sponsored research, an almost 300 percent increase since $31 million in 1998. In terms of sponsored research, Mason is ranked at about 170 in the country among more than 600 universities nationwide, making it a Level 2 research institution.

“We need to increase sponsored research significantly to obtain Level 1 status,” says Roger Stough, Mason’s vice president of research and economic development. “It is the goal of the university to reach Level 1 and to get there reasonably quickly. This means we will need to go from about $90 million to $250 million in sponsored research by 2014.”

The big question is how? What kind of a plan or strategy is needed to make the leap? Stough has a plan, and it is one that isn’t necessarily contingent on the present economy. He believes the way is to focus on what he calls the “interfaces.”

Potential Hot Spots

Traditionally, universities are organized around their academic programs, such as liberal arts, science, business, and so on. “That’s great for the education mission, but it is not always such a good fit for research,” Stough says.

“Oftentimes, the major research questions are not in the traditional areas of knowledge but at the interfaces between those areas. The opportunities for big projects, big growth, and new centers are at those interfaces.”

A good example is the Center for History and New Media, which uses digital media and computer technology to make history accessible to many audiences. The center has drawn international attention since its inception in 1994, and it continues to garner prestigious awards and attract large amounts of funding from a variety of sources, including $7 million from the U.S. Department of Education for the National History Education Clearinghouse, an online project that brings U.S. history teachers high-quality support and resources.

“They are using new tools to deal with an old problem,” says university president Alan Merten, “and the federal government and foundations have found value in this surprisingly productive meeting of two disciplines.”

Major research universities typically have several large-scale research programs that often span multiple departments or schools, but many universities are not organized to take advantage of those opportunities.

“So there is a question, how to organize that kind of activity?” Stough asks. “One of my thoughts is what if we had three to five major centers, which were attracting $20 million to $25 million in sponsored research each year.”

Mason is not far from meeting that target at this time, he adds. Currently, the biggest center is at about $5 million, but Stough sees the potential.

Roger Stough

Roger Stough

“Can we grow some of the ones we have today into that scale tomorrow? And if we want to do that, how difficult is it going to be?” he asks.

Areas being considered include climate change, aging, homeland security and critical infrastructure, energy policy, cybersecurity, neuroscience and bioengineering, government innovation, biocontainment, and entrepreneurship.

“We are not trying to pick winners,” Stough says. “We are trying to help these existing centers and initiatives take off, and when one starts to break out of the pack, we will push it. We are doing that now with some that have potential.”

One example he gives is the work being done on aging-related topics throughout the university. “We have many faculty members working in this area across most academic units, but the work isn’t organized in any kind of meaningful way,” he says. “If we create a network or framework to put them in so we can consolidate the mass of their capabilities, we might be able to generate significant resources in that area. A center might be the best way to do that.”

The Biomedical Research Laboratory currently under construction on the Prince William Campus will also play a role in increasing research activity. The biosafety level 3 facility is one of 13 biocontainment laboratories nationwide being built with funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“The biocontainment laboratory is a huge infrastructure element around which we can and will organize an increasingly large number of life sciences and infectious disease research,” says Stough.

Beyond the Big Centers

In addition to focusing on ways to consolidate and build on the university’s strengths, the administration is also looking out for the lone researcher.

“When we discuss and plan for institutional research, we often mistakenly concentrate on the sponsors. For example, the U.S. government awards a professor a grant to perform some specific research that is well-identified and is paid for,” says Merten. “But great universities have an equivalent amount of unsponsored research. Such research is completed at the initiative of the professor and results in academic papers, academic books, or presentations.”

To promote the development and growth of these scholars, Stough is considering programs that would provide motivation and seed money. “We have to continue to provide as much support as we can, especially for young faculty to build their expertise in areas they are interested in,” he says. This is how the university develops new and emerging research and organizes it into clusters that in some cases grow into large centers.

One of the ways the university is doing this is annually recognizing young researchers with the Emerging Researcher, Scholar, Creator Award. To win the award, which comes with a stipend, the faculty member must be within 10 years of receiving his or her terminal degree and have growing national and international recognition for achievements and scholarship.

“We have to find a way for ideas to get developed and stimulated. That is the larger foundation for a dynamic and sustained research program,” Stough says.

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From Discovery to Marketplace

By turning scientific discoveries into new products, universities play a vital role in spurring innovation across many industries. Since its 2001 launch, Mason’s Office of Technology Transfer has been facilitating the business community’s use of Mason faculty inventions.

The office encourages faculty, staff, and students to disclose their new intellectual property and then takes an active role in protecting the property and looking for commercialization opportunities.

“When faculty members think they have a new concept, they contact us,” says the office’s director, Jennifer Murphy, assistant vice president for research. “We discuss whether there is a market for the invention, how it would be commercialized, and whether it is patentable.”

The office then moves forward with patenting most of the submitted innovations. The office also runs George Mason Intellectual Properties Inc. (GMIP), a corporation that manages the protection and commercialization of the university’s patents and copyrights.

“The university, which owns most of the technology developed here, assigns that technology to the nonprofit GMIP to facilitate the patenting and licensing process. Once the transfer has been completed, GMIP becomes the owner of the property,” Murphy explains. “License agreements are then made between GMIP and the company that will develop and commercialize the technology.”

Murphy’s staff entered into 13 licenses in 2008, a substantial increase from the annual average of four.

Over the past three years, the university has seen a great deal of growth in life science technology disclosures, which now compose half of the new invention disclosures. Most of these come from bioscience efforts on Mason’s Prince William Campus, including proteomics and infectious diseases.

During its eight years of operation, the office has helped bring more than 80 Mason-born concepts to companies, where they are being sold or developed for  sale in the marketplace.

“I believe that Tech Transfer is one of the best ways to get research into the community,” says Murphy. “If we want to be known for our research, then we need to have a product in the market and be able to say that it was developed at Mason.”

Marjorie Musick


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