This article was printed in the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday, June 5, 2016
Four years after Ohio State University collected a $483 million parking-lease payment and pledged to dedicate half of its investment earnings to a research hiring campaign, the Discovery Themes initiative is underway.
More than 60 new researchers have been hired in fields ranging from materials science to biomedical informatics to anthropology. That puts the university about one-third of the way through the planned Discovery Themes hiring, newly named Provost Bruce McPheron told trustees during a committee meeting on Thursday.
Formal searches are underway for 81 more positions. In all, that will add up to nearly $19 million in annual salary and benefits — half of which is paid with Discovery Themes funding and half by the college or department that houses the new hire.
Where the mammoth undertaking is going, and how we’ll know if it’s a success, is hard to say. The goal, by design, is broad: to solve global problems in three areas — energy and environment, food production and security, and health and wellness — and to incorporate the humanities and the arts in those solutions.
Big-ideas research campaigns like Discovery Themes are in vogue at large research universities. Indiana University announced a $300 million Grand Challenges program last fall, and Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and UCLA all have launched big-money, broadly defined research initiatives. All proclaim the benefits of interdisciplinary work — scientists from different fields combining their expertise to tackle complex problems.
The approach has critics, some of whom say that such large efforts lead to poor communication, expensive bureaucracy and redundant work.
Harvey J. Graff, an English and history professor and eminent scholar at Ohio State, questions putting so much of the parking-lease money toward the Discovery Themes. He also has criticized the relative lack of emphasis on the humanities and liberal arts in shaping the themes. OSU officials added the humanities and arts focus after liberal arts faculty members complained.
Beyond those concerns, Graff says that university officials didn’t include faculty members enough in developing the focus areas for research.
University officials said that hundreds of professors participated in some way in narrowing the ideas to seven focus areas within the three original themes, and that 475 faculty members are “ actively engaged” in work related to the themes.
As for evaluating success or failure, research teams are developing criteria by which they can be held accountable for their work, said Michael Boehm, vice provost for academic and strategic planning, who oversees the Discovery Themes. He plans a “very significant review” of the initiative in summer 2017, which will be the three-year mark for the earliest hires, and again at the five-year mark.
Among the first Discovery Themes hires was Morgan Cichon, a freshly minted Ph.D. who did her graduate work in metabolomics — the study of a food’s molecular profile and how it affects human biological systems — under Steven Schwartz, a food-science professor and lead researcher for one of the focus areas.
“We know that different people respond to different foods in different ways,” Cichon said. She can’t talk about the details of unpublished research, but one line of inquiry looks at how lycopene, a bioactive component in tomatoes, could help protect against certain cancers. Another involves black raspberries and smokers.
During her five years of graduate study at OSU, Cichon said, “I actually saw (the Discovery Themes) grow from the beginning. It’s amazing to see how the university is investing in key areas of research.”
University officials are still figuring out how to define success. “We’re in the process of determining what a return on investment will look like,” McPheron said. His bosses are keen to know. Among questions posed at Thursday’s committee meeting, Trustee Janet B. Reid asked, “How will we know that we’re better off having had them?”
Administrators already are touting one central benefit: OSU researchers are working together across disciplines, they say, like never before. The thinking is that global problems can’t be solved by one type of expertise alone. “Food isn’t just an agricultural problem,” said Caroline Whitacre, vice president for research. “It’s a transportation problem, and it’s a social problem.”
Discovery Themes positions have been authorized by project, and a team might include a statistician, a plant pathologist, a sociologist and a political scientist.
The role of humanities and arts scholars should grow in future projects. McPheron invited faculty members in those areas to submit ideas for research to complement the work in the other theme areas. Last month, 33 proposals were turned in.
Their expertise, and that of social scientists, is necessary if scientific breakthroughs are to mean anything in the world at large, Boehm said. “Technical solutions alone don’t solve these problems. Solutions have to involve humans — understanding how they behave and interact.”