by James A. Bacon
R&D at the University of Virginia’s has increased at roughly double the rate of Duke, the University of North Carolina, and other peer institutions over the past ten years, Provost Ian Baucom told the Board of Visitors this afternoon during its June meeting. Admittedly, UVa started from a lower base and its R&D expenditures are still only half those of its Research Triangle rivals, he said. “We should feel really good about the trend. But we’re still behind.”
A university’s research ranking is important for several reasons, Baucom told the visitors. Research discoveries on maladies from autism to Alzheimer’s “literally change lives.” Research enables students to develop personally so they can participate in the economy as innovators and knowledge creators. And research rankings can affect institutional prestige. “Our reputation and standing depend upon it.”
Research funding from external and internal sources amounts to about $650 million a year. Much of the research — 63% — occurs in traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) fields, where the big money is, but UVa’s comparative advantage is in the social sciences, humanities, quantitative research and computational science. Rather than copying strategies that worked for other institutions, UVa needs to create its own vision, Baumon said.
The new priorities in the embryonic ten-year plan, as the provost sees them, will include:
- environment and sustainability
- precision medicine and precision health
- brain and neuroscience
- digital technology and society
One of the challenges UVa will undertake is the mental health crisis, and he briefly described an initiative to tackle cancer and mental illness in rural Virginia. It is becoming increasingly evident that there is a strong connection between the rise of digital technology, youth emotional and cognitive development, and the surge in mental illness, he said.
Another big question UVa will explore is the impact of digital technology and generative Artificial Intelligence on democracy.
Baucom mentioned the idea of using big data to crunch through patient records (with all due protections for privacy) to obtain medical insights as opposed to conducting long, time-consuming clinical trials.
The ten-year plan, he said, will identify the infrastructure UVa will need to fund in order to support those and other initiatives: buildings, labs, equipment, support for critical trials, administrative support, graduate students, and more.
Baucom offered no estimate on how much it would cost to build this infrastructure, hire leading faculty in emerging disciplines, and support them with a cadre of research assistants. Under pressure to stick to a tight meeting schedule, board members asked no questions.