Supporting Research in the College of Education
We are exploring some new approaches to how we support sponsored research in the College, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide an update and to invite comment.
As you are probably aware, the level of sponsored research in the College has grown substantially over the past 10 years. In a relatively short period of time, we have moved from award levels in the neighborhood of $4 million per year to award levels approaching $20 million. While the past two years have been relatively stable, the growth between 2005 and 2007 was remarkable.
The composition of the portfolio has also evolved during this period. The distribution of our awards has always been a bit skewed with relatively large numbers of smaller projects complemented by a small number of large projects. This general pattern continues, but the magnitude of the skew has increased such that the distance between the modal small project and the modal large project has become substantially larger. Two large projects in particular are noteworthy in this regard: the Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Lab funded at $34 million over its first five years of existence and the NASA AES Project funded for up to $27 million over its first five years. We have had to develop new administrative support structures to handle these grants, and in both cases the administrative support is based in the Office of the Associate Dean for Research, Outreach, and Technology.
Thanks to the hard work of our faculty members, we have received several more recent awards that also raise questions about how best to provide administrative support. These projects are not as large as the Regional Lab or the NASA project, but they are sufficiently large and interdisciplinary enough in their nature to make us wonder about whether an academic department is the best administrative base. We are exploring ways to house several of these grants centrally in the Office of the Associate Dean.
One of the goals is to build up expertise in areas like research methodology, statistical analysis, and Web site design so that PIs can draw upon this talent as they prepare proposals and pursue projects. Where possible and appropriate, fractions of these individuals’ time can be charged to projects, with the associate dean’s office providing backup support for periods when there is not sufficient project activity to cover the full salary and benefits costs.
We have been benchmarking with other colleges at Penn State as well as elsewhere and believe this is a viable model. But we recognize that it carries risks and challenges. For example, we know that PIs are understandably particular about who works on their projects, and we realize that the fit for an associate dean’s office-provided staff member may or may not be good for a specific project. We will defer to the PI’s judgment about how best to staff his/her project, but we hope that PIs will seriously consider making use of the expertise that becomes available in the associate dean’s office.
We also aspire to build a sustainable funding model for the future to support this kind of research expertise. We have discussed several options in the past, including the use of Research Incentive Funds and the distribution of salary-savings dollars. The time has come to revisit these questions, and I plan to discuss options with the Faculty Council in the fall.
I have been impressed with the progress we have made toward strengthening research in the College, and I hasten to point out that faculty members in this College also conduct a considerable amount of important unfunded research. There is no intent here to diminish the importance of unfunded research, but it is also clear that we need to make further improvements in how we support sponsored projects. I look forward to a continued dialogue about these issues and welcome comments and questions. If you have thoughts to share or questions, please be in touch with me or Associate Dean Kelly.
David H. Monk