The University of Minnesota is the state’s flagship, land-grant university. The system is composed of five campuses: the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/ St. Paul), Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Rochester. Among the first tier of research institutions worldwide, the University of Minnesota is one of only five comprehensive universities in the nation with an engineering school, a medical school, a law school, a veterinary medicine school, and an agricultural school all on one campus and within a single system.
The University of Minnesota is ranked 8th among public universities by the National Science Foundation. In fiscal year 2017, faculty and staff competed for and won $745 million in externally sponsored research funding. The University is home to more than 300 collaborative institutes and centers. Approximately 68,000 students (undergraduate, graduate, professional and non-degree) attend the University. The University of Minnesota boasts 25 Nobel Laureates – 14 of them in the fields of Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Physics. Twenty-two University scholars were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in this decade. The University is home to 61 Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 38 faculty named to the National Academy of Engineering, 16 named to the National Academy of Medicine, and 40 named to the National Academy of Sciences.
Because of the unexpected nature of some of the most important discoveries in basic science, flexible funding that can be quickly deployed to follow up on promising avenues of research will make it possible to break new boundaries with novel discoveries. Therefore, we are always seeking funds with the flexibility to support the widest range of basic research initiatives.
Knowledge-driven basic research at the University of Minnesota encompasses all research programs that aim to discover and investigate fundamental mechanisms and processes in the natural world. The goal of this research is to develop far-reaching benefits for humanity.
Knowledge-driven basic research is at the core of what the University of Minnesota is uniquely well positioned to accomplish. This research is high-risk and some pursuits may turn out to be noble efforts with unremarkable outcomes, whereas other research will be paradigm-shifting. Philanthropic funding can be the catalyst needed to undertake riskier research with a longer time horizon than traditional government funding provides. Philanthropic seed funding is therefore an absolutely necessary part of the basic research funding formula.
Driving Basic Research
The University of Minnesota is a comprehensive system and the basic research enterprise encompasses science and engineering, health, medicine, and agriculture. Some current examples of promising basic research include:
- The Stem Cell Institute, the first interdisciplinary institute in the United States dedicated to stem cell research, drawing together 50 investigators from 25 collaborating University departments to target five primary diseases: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, and inherited disorders and its affiliated large-scale cell processing facility
- Unlocking the power of quantum materials by studying the observed, but as yet unexplained, properties in superconducting materials, through both theoretical approaches and experimentation
- Accelerating microbiome research through examining the fundamental cellular processes that make human beings resistant to disease
- Developing new materials such as novel polymers for purposes as diverse as DNA vaccine delivery and health applications, and replacing polluting plastics with renewable biodegradable materials
- Developing new instrumentation and medical physics methodologies making possible the imaging of biological processes at greater levels of detail and higher resolutions than ever before
- Using molecular biology to identify genes in plants that contribute to disease resistance and make crops more resilient and secure
Many more areas of basic research in the natural sciences and other disciplines are currently being explored by University of Minnesota faculty, as well.
As science pushes the frontiers of knowledge, we cannot know what new research subjects will arise, but we can thoughtfully position ourselves to take the greatest advantage of fresh opportunities that expand the horizon of human scientific understanding.
Fund for Basic Research
As a potential new research partner of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we propose to establish a Fund for Basic Research focused exclusively on basic research in the physical and life sciences. Key characteristics of the Fund would include:
- Support for a range of discovery-driven research in the physical and life sciences, and at varying levels of funding awards; includes categories for consideration of both single-investigator research and larger interdisciplinary teams. Given the research culture at the University of Minnesota, it is likely that a preponderance of funds would be designated for interdisciplinary team research.
- Rigorous peer review processes that are in current practice at the University of Minnesota (see below);
- Consistency with ongoing capital campaign emphases and goals, which include giving opportunities to support basic research. Based on donor priorities, a combination of endowment and funds that can be directed to basic research in a more immediate two- to five-year period is envisioned;
- Opportunities for increased visibility for outstanding basic research among the philanthropic foundations that are members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance.
In the basic sciences, there is a tremendous need for support. Our priorities include:
- Shared state-of-the-art laboratory core research facility equipment, such as a gene sequencer ($80,000 – $695,000)
- Support for professors at the associate level (~$120,000/year/associate professor)
- Postdoctoral fellow researchers ($60,000/year/fellow)
- Graduate student researchers ($47,000/year/student)
- Endowment, managed for long-term impact: $2M Chair, $1M Professorship, $25,000+ scholarship
The University of Minnesota has a rigorous, well-established review process for distributing internal funds. Our strong capacity in basic research has laid the groundwork for interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary work with more direct application, such as the University’s MnDRIVE program, Grand Challenge Research Initiative grants, and Minnesota Futures grants.
MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy – is a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota that aligns areas of research strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to address grand challenges. In 2013, the State of Minnesota authorized an $18 million recurring annual investment in four research areas: Robotics, Global Food, Environment, and Brain Conditions. In 2017, the state appropriated another $4 million per year for a fifth research area: Cancer Trials. This program has been exceedingly successful with hundreds of researchers participating every year in MnDRIVE-related research and a return on investment of $2 in external funding for each $1 invested. The Office of the Vice President for Research provides accountability measures for the initiative and helps advocate for the program at the state capitol.
Grand Challenge Grants
The University of Minnesota focuses on five interrelated Grand Challenges that we identified through a campus-community engagement process. Three of the five have a fundamental basic research component in the natural sciences:
- Assuring clean water and sustainable ecosystems
- Advancing health through tailored solutions
- Feeding the world sustainably
Grand Challenges grants support broadly interdisciplinary research teams that engage internal and external partners. To be appropriate for the University of Minnesota, a Grand Challenge research collaboration should engage students, postdoctoral associates and fellows, and other trainees in innovative and groundbreaking ways. A key part of our mission is training future leaders, practitioners, and global citizens who can address complex and important challenges.
The Minnesota Futures grant program (an annual, spring competition sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research) advances fresh, collaborative research by fostering opportunities for researchers to cross disciplinary and professional boundaries and respond to emerging interdisciplinary research and scholarship.
Proposals originate from new interdisciplinary groups. The award period is two years for a maximum request of $250,000. The proposals are evaluated by peer review with weight given to the newness of the research group, the quality of the research design, the feasibility of the plan of operation, and the potential for future external funding or scholarly impact.
The Balance between Single Investigator Research and Larger Scale Cross-disciplinary Programs
We expect that basic research might begin with a single investigator, and other times will emerge as a result of broad cross-disciplinary initiatives.
We are especially conscious of the need to focus resources on mid-career professors at the associate level as they transition to senior scientists who have the capabilities to develop potentially field-altering basic research.
The University of Minnesota has a culture that encourages interdisciplinary, collaborative research based on its foundational strengths the disciplines and in basic research. As ideas emerge, investigators are encouraged to draw in the collaborators and the University resources that they need for the work to succeed.
With flexible funding designated for basic research, the University of Minnesota will be ready to take advantage of opportunities to pursue new avenues of scientific exploration.
The University of Minnesota is an internationally recognized incubator for advances in basic research. We share the Science Philanthropy Alliance’s conviction that basic discoveries in science and subsequent new technologies and applications will ultimately result in improvements in the country’s economic prospects and in the health and wellbeing of society. The University of Minnesota looks forward to taking on new challenges with the Science Philanthropy Alliance members’ as allies in our shared quest to understand our world more completely for the benefit of humankind.