Penn State research impacts the world

Providing multiple examples of what differentiates Penn State from peer institutions and how access to world-class researchers impacts the lives of Penn State students, Lora Weiss, senior vice president for Research, presented an overview of the University’s research enterprise today (Feb. 18) during the Board of Trustees meeting of the Committee on Academic Affairs, Research, and Student Life.

Weiss also highlighted innovative Penn State research discoveries in the Commonwealth, the nation and the world.

The senior vice president began by reporting a significant milestone attained during fiscal year 2019-20, as Penn State research expenditures surpassed $1 billion. This achievement places Penn State among a select group of research universities and reflects the breadth and depth of its research expertise, she said. Expenditures increased by $40 million, with a record $633 million in federal funding and $375 million from a combination of private funders, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and University sources.

In addition, Weiss noted, in the most recent (FY2018) National Science Foundation Higher Education Research & Development rankings, Penn State is listed among the top 10 institutions in 18 different research fields, ranging from materials science to anthropology.

“These measures are a testament to the incredible expertise, creativity, and dedication of our faculty, staff and students,” she said. “They reflect the extraordinary innovations within our research portfolio, the talent of our researchers, and the continued confidence of our sponsors.”

Weiss stressed the many dimensions of research at Penn State, encompassing all of its colleges and campuses as well as its interdisciplinary research institutes and agricultural extension program, carried out by faculty, staff, and students — both graduate and undergraduate. The work is funded via sponsored research and seed grants alike and is administered via expertly staffed offices for research support and operations.

Broad support

Penn State enjoys a broad range of research sponsorship, with major external funders including federal and state agencies, as well as corporations, industry and foundations, Weiss reported. More than 15 federal agencies actively support research at the University, she noted, and more than a dozen foundations have done so. “Once again, this is statement about the breadth of our research and our ability to innovate. Having such a diversified research portfolio helps us to weather events like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The broad federal support also reflects Penn State’s alignment with national research priorities, including designated industries of the future — artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, 5G and biotechnology, as well as national security, health and wellness, and space exploration.

Empowering students

Access to world-class researchers offers a wealth of benefits to Penn State students, Weiss told board members, from hands-on research experience to job opportunities to lasting industry connections. Undergraduates gain invaluable experience through internships, senior projects and as summer hires in critical areas of society and our nation’s economy. Between 2014 and 2019, nearly 8,000 students completed undergraduate research experiences. Several have benefited from National Institutes of Health training grants totaling $3.4M annually, she said, adding that the Graduate School is currently piloting “Accelerate to Industry,” a program focused on providing career readiness opportunities for students.

Penn State students also are benefitting from the recruiting advantages provided to employers through research partnerships. Corporate gifts support undergraduate projects and provide plentiful opportunities for making connections with potential employers. Industry partners including Merck, Lockheed Martin, PPG, Volvo, CSL Behring, and Wabtec all engage undergraduates in the research they sponsor, and companies that locate at Innovation Park count on proximity to students for recruiting, Weiss said.

No less important, she added, are the educational advantages afforded by a major research university. “Our students learn from professors who are true experts in their fields and who bring a wealth of research knowledge and experience to the classroom,” she said. Nor are these benefits limited to University Park, as research is conducted at Commonwealth Campuses as well. “Research across Penn State means research across Pennsylvania.”

In FY20, Commonwealth Campuses administered or participated in $41.6 million in sponsored awards, and in 2018-19, more than 1,800 undergraduate students at Commonwealth Campuses participated in supervised research, according to Weiss. As one example of world-class research undertaken at a Commonwealth Campus, she cited the Lake Plastic Recovery, Recycling and Polymer Research program at Penn State Behrend in Erie, and its launch of a new major in polymer engineering and science.

Culture of Interdisciplinarity

One of the factors that distinguishes Penn State from its peers, Weiss said, is a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary research, demonstrated tangibly in its seven interdisciplinary research institutes. She took the opportunity to highlight the achievements of a few of those institutes.

The Materials Research Institute, created in 1992 with an initial strategic investment of $500,000, accounted for more than $150 million in research awards in 2020, Weiss reported. Its unrivaled core facilities make it a critical strategic partner for industry and are a tremendous asset to recruiting top-tier faculty. More than 100 Pennsylvania companies use the facilities, and partners include Morgan, Corning, PPG, Lockheed Martin, Volvo, Dow and Murata. The institute’s leadership, resources and expertise are keys to Penn State’s No. 1 ranking in materials science and No. 2 ranking in materials engineering in the recent NSF Research & Development report, Weiss said.

The Social Sciences Research Institute supports research aimed at both fundamental understanding and societal impacts in four key research areas: smart and connected health, the human system, social disparities, and transitioning data to knowledge and impact. This institute’s agile response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Weiss noted, allowed studies of the psychological and social impacts of online technology during the pandemic, and well as the impacts of social distancing on family well-being and child safety.

Unique among the institutes is the Applied Research Laboratory, a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center which last year celebrated 75 years of research excellence. This lab is charged with developing innovative solutions to address challenging national security problems in sea, land, air, space and cyberspace by maintaining essential core capabilities in communications and information, materials and manufacturing, navigation, undersea systems, fluid dynamics and acousticsand by transitioning advanced technology to operational programs in support of national security priorities, Weiss explained.

The culture of interdisciplinarity that has grown along with the institutes enables an approach to collaboration and cluster hiring that was held up as a national model in a recent study published in the Journal of Higher EducationWeiss told the committee. “It’s a profoundly different approach to leveraging our expertise,” she said.

Strategic seed investments are another important interdisciplinary tool, allowing bold forays into new research directions, rapid responses to emerging needs, exploration of high risk-high payoff ideas and collaborations, and support of ideas that are too early for sponsors to fund. As an example of the positive impact of such investment, Weiss cited the University’s research response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which $2.4 million was seeded to 48 research teams across the University that quickly pivoted to address the crisis with expertise in areas ranging from biology to social sciences. To date, she said, those early funds have yielded an additional $11 million in external awards.

Leading for the future

In summary, Weiss emphasized the value of research as a driver of progress in the commonwealth, the nation and the world.

“Our universities have become the country’s innovation centers. A top research enterprise like Penn State’s attracts leading faculty — the innovators, knowledge discoverers and creative drivers of tomorrow,” she said. “It attracts the best students and provides them with experiences that lead to successful careers. It attracts industrial partnerships, as we help companies anticipate and solve their challenges. Research is crucial to our standing among our peers as a world-class institution and research is what prepares us to address the challenges of tomorrow.”

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