Genomics, antimicrobial resistance, clean stormwater and health disparities are the subjects of several multidisciplinary proposals awarded funding as part of Washington State University’s Grand Challenges research initiative. University officials also funded a comprehensive program aimed at supporting student resilience and growth through graduation.
Two “smart” proposals will receive planning funds: one looking at genomics and smart foods for optimal nutrition and health, and one to improve health and quality of life in smart cities.
Officials have also committed $500,000 over five years for student success and research seed grants. The research seed grants are aimed at developing projects within humanities and social sciences relevant to the initiatives and sustaining multidisciplinary discussions among faculty.
The larger proposals, which will receive more than $29 million over five years, are strategic investments in the University’s research and teaching enterprise, serving as springboards into new fields of research while improving existing strengths. The application process, which yielded 13 research proposals and four initiatives to improve student success, has already had the side benefit of improving cross-college communications and multidisciplinary collaboration.
“I appreciate the work so many faculty and reviewers put into this effort and the investment the University community has made in helping us set exciting new directions for the University’s quest to create and share new knowledge,” said President Kirk Schulz.
The Program is funded through a 5% holdback from all colleges. This holdback resulted in the university recovering $12 million. Of this, $6 million was immediately allocated to faculty raises, leaving a total of $6 million for the Program. Approximately $4 million was allocated to research proposals, and approximately $2 million to student success proposals. Proposals were invited from all degree-granting colleges and the Offices of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. Units were instructed to prepare collaborative proposals that involved other colleges, and nonacademic units when appropriate.
Proposals went through three rounds of review. Each proposal was initially read by pairs of independent technical reviewers, all of whom are external to the university and have expertise relevant to the proposal topic. These technical comments were provided to a six-member Senior Review Panel, all of whom are external to the university, and have broad expertise that collectively addressed all topics covered by the proposals. The Panel developed a priority funding list that was forwarded to an eight-member Executive Committee, all of whom are, or were recently, members of WSU, and none of whom were associated with a proposal. The Executive Committee was charged with examining the funding list and providing commentary as to the fit of each recommended proposal with WSU’s capabilities, priorities, and history.
All sets of reviews were then forwarded to President Kirk Schulz, Provost and Executive Vice-President Daniel Bernardo, Vice-President for Research Christopher Keane, and interim Co-Provosts Erica Austin and Ron Mittelhammer for final decision, with input from Associate Vice-President and Chief University Budget Officer Joan King. This three-stage, externally-driven process has since been lauded by other observers as a model for university reallocation decisions.
A total of 17 proposals were submitted. The President’s decision team elected to fully fund six proposals, partially fund two more, and allocate funds to a number of supporting initiatives. These choices will result in almost all of the $6 million being returned to colleges, with the remainder being shared between the Office of the Provost and Office of Research to manage proposal activities and support proposal submissions.
The “Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Proposals” grew out of the Provost and Office of Research’s 120-Day Research Study, which identified the five Grand Challenges and 19 recommendations to enhance WSU research. Applicants were encouraged to submit proposals that would stimulate more multidisciplinary research and a greater investment in research infrastructure—two items considered central to the Grand Challenges.
University officials expect the research proposals will stimulate enhanced federal funding, as well as more impactful publications, increased commercialization activities and faculty recruiting. Current funding comes from the recent strategic reallocation of five percent of University unit budgets. Half of the reallocation has gone to faculty and staff pay increases.
Fully funded research initiatives are:
Functional Genomics Initiative ($4,998,890 over five years)
This initiative will marshal the emerging science of genome editing to accomplish two goals: generating traits in large animals and livestock to control disease and feed a growing global population, and supporting life sciences across the University, including the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Enabling the work is the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system, which can quickly edit specific genes to analyze and control their function.
The initiative will hire new faculty members who specialize in the technology, plus two faculty, including a bioethicist, to address societal issues that arise from its application. It will address both the Sustaining Health and Food-Water-Energy Nexus Grand Challenges. The College of Veterinary Medicine will act as the initiative’s lead unit in collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Community Health Analytics Initiative ($4,990,790 over five years)
This initiative will boost WSU’s ability to analyze extensive datasets known as “Big Data” to promote information-based healthcare research. Initially it will look at the social determinants of antimicrobial resistance in human and animal populations. It will focus in particular on rural, migrant and Native American communities in Eastern Washington, who are likely at high risk for developing resistant infections.
The initiative addresses both the Sustaining Health and Opportunity and Equity Grand Challenges. The Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture and the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science will lead the initiative in partnership with the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
Research Collaborative for Addressing Health Disparities ($4,127,320 over five years)
This initiative will design interventions to address the persistent and damaging health disparities that grow out of poverty and discrimination. A key focus of the research will be the factors that let some individuals and communities achieve good health despite significant adversity.
The initiative, which addresses the Grand Challenges on Sustaining Health and Opportunity and Equity, will be led by the College of Arts and Sciences in collaboration with CAHNRS, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, the College of Education, and the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.
Green Stormwater Initiative ($3,511,885 over five years)
This will address the rising importance of stormwater, which carries toxic pollutants from urban and agricultural areas into streams and surface waters. WSU has extensive expertise in the fields of stormwater and water in general, with labs and facilities already in place at the Pullman, Puyallup and Vancouver locations.
The initiative will be led by CAHNRS in collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences and the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. It will address the Sustainable Resources Grand Challenge to supply food, energy and water for future generations.
The initiative Student Success through Transformational Change ($7,395,267 over five years) is a merger of two proposals, one aimed at freshmen and the other at upperclass students. The freshmen program is aimed at building resilience, purpose and growth through both faculty support and parental interventions. The program for upperclass students will integrate peer mentoring, programming and advising to move students into increasingly experiential learning opportunities.
Officials also awarded smaller planning grants to the following research initiatives:
Nutritional Genomics and Smart Foods ($2,491,430 over five years)
This initiative will explore the role of the genome in determining an individual’s nutritional needs. The Office of Research will assemble a team to refine and execute the planned work, which will support Grand Challenges on Sustaining Health, Opportunity and Equity, the Food-Energy-Water Nexus and National Security.
Holistic Approach to Developing Smarter Cities ($1,500,000 over five years)
This will develop a framework to monitor, predict and control energy and air quality in an urban environment and to record the resulting health impacts. It will be led by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture in collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and the Carson College of Business. The initiative will answer the Smart Systems Grand Challenge to harness technology to improve quality of life.