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Advancing our Research Mission and Identifying University-Wide Priorities

  • We must visibly and substantially increase our commitment to our research mission and raise our research and scholarship profile. We must especially focus on departments and disciplines in strategically selected areas where we have an opportunity to achieve nationally and internationally recognized levels of distinction and achievement. Success in this endeavor will require significant investments in and improvements to our research support, physical facilities, and information technology infrastructure.

 

  •  We must invest in a select number of interdisciplinary endeavors that will enable us to leverage our own strengths as well as the strengths of potential collaborators. These interdisciplinary endeavors should include some efforts to which we have already made substantial commitments and new areas that will emerge as we develop our strategic priorities and research vision for the future.



From its inception, Rice has been dedicated—in the words of Lovett—“as much to investigation as to instruction” and to providing a setting in which faculty would join the “pleasures of teaching” with “the privileges of research.” The university has realized much of this ambition with distinction in our undergraduate education and research excellence across many disciplines. The nature of research and creative contributions varies by school and discipline, and thus the support needed for productivity is not the same in all parts of the university. The support requirements must therefore first be identified and defined in each of our schools and departments. Nonetheless, as was made apparent in the discussions pursuant to the Call to Conversation, there are infrastructure needs, both physical and administrative, that must be addressed across the university if we are to achieve the distinction in research to which we aspire.

Building Our Research Infrastructure

To significantly advance our research mission and our profile of scholarship and creative contribution requires that we invest resources to support fully the work of our faculty. Addressing issues of administrative and technical support for the research enterprise will be crucial in retaining our most outstanding faculty and attracting the next generation of faculty talent. Success in building our faculty requires strong support for research, including administrative support for grant application and grant administration; technical support staff; adequate space; and funds for scholarly research and collaboration. We must work to identify at which levels of the university—central, school, or department—various elements of support are most efficiently provided. To support school- and department-level investment in research infrastructure, we will continue the recently initiated policy of returning a portion of indirect cost recovery to the schools and departments. In other instances, efficiency will require that we create partnerships across the university, such as the Rice Shared Equipment Authority, to address our research infrastructure and support needs.

Physical space is critical for research activity, and most especially collaborative research activity. We must first assure ourselves that we are using existing space as efficiently as possible and that, as our research needs and priorities change, so too does the allocation of space. Once we have taken the necessary step to use our existing space as effectively as possible, we must make strategic choices about new space. The Collaborative Research Center being planned for the site at University and Main will be a fundamental step forward in both meeting our need for state-of-the-art research space and developing deeper collaborative relationships with the Texas Medical Center. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that this building will not fully meet our research space needs in science and engineering, and thus we must begin now a planning process for an additional building that will house other strategic endeavors in science and engineering. Similarly, we have begun the planning phases for a new Social Sciences building that should enable us to house our social sciences faculty more effectively. Opening up space at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy will create additional opportunities for collaborative research endeavors under the auspices of the Institute. As elaborated elsewhere, our graduate students are absolutely essential to our research endeavor, and space planning must take their needs into account as well.

We must also continue targeted investments in and improvements to our information technology (IT) infrastructure. Given the increasing centrality of information technology to research and analysis, as well as the presentation and dissemination of information, we must effectively integrate and support the use of technology in the research of our faculty and the teaching of our students. We are already making major investments in virtually all aspects of our technology infrastructure, having spent nearly $40 million for IT improvements, and we must now plan both to maintain that structure and to make sure we have the human resources to use it optimally.

The library also has a crucial role in the research endeavors of the university, and its evolving nature in the digital age will bring both challenges and opportunities. We must invest more in providing research and information support to our professors and students through specialized staff and services, and we must secure access to those particular books, collections, and historical archives that further the scholarly activity of our community. Our efforts must engage a broad cross-section of faculty and students in identifying both needs and possibilities for the library of the future and the integration of information resources with pedagogy in such projects as Connexions.

Comments

Provide tools and staff support to help students search for articles in online journals. I am always disoriented when navigating through hierarchies of collections and institutional access points. Also, provide easy access to hard copies of loaned materials (books and older journals). —Alum

Our graduate and postdoctoral programs are critical to the success of our research mission. We must undertake the necessary steps to assure that we have sufficient numbers of such students for the work of our faculty and that our policies enable us to compete effectively for the very best graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. These questions are more fully addressed in the section on graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Identifying Future Endeavors

Key disciplinary priorities will be defined by the schools and departments in their strategic planning processes, which should be completed over the next six to nine months. Each school must carefully assess its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities as it seeks to build programs of national renown. These school-based and departmental processes should be complemented and enhanced by efforts to build interdisciplinary endeavors. We must identify those priorities that will span across schools and therefore assume university-wide importance alongside departmental priorities.

Interdisciplinary centers, programs, and institutes offer Rice an opportunity to leverage our small size by bringing together and integrating strengths across the institution. University resources should be available to support faculty and departments seeking collaborative opportunities as such help is often needed to overcome the significant barriers to interdisciplinary and interinstitutional collaboration that continue to exist. This requires us to infuse our most basic processes and structures—such as search committees and faculty appointments—with a greater interdisciplinary element.

As stated in the introduction to this document, we aim to provide the first stage of elaboration of our vision for Rice. Some of our broader strategic priorities are clear—greater interinstitutional research collaborations; more formalized international outreach, with a particular focus toward Asia and Latin America; and research engagement with Houston through initiatives in energy and urban systems. Furthermore, our position of leadership in nanotechnology—which it can be said, we have propelled forward internationally with the discovery of buckminsterfullerene—must be maintained. Our visibility in nanotechnology symbolizes the powerful impact we can have as a relatively small university through broad-ranging interdisciplinary research activity that attracts and galvanizes faculty in a range of disciplines.

We must select other high-priority interdisciplinary endeavors through consultative processes and dialogue, and our choices should be informed by the strategic planning of the schools. Thus far, members of our faculty have suggested a range of ideas—global health, magnetism and quantum materials, high-performance computing, biomedical translational research, a mind–brain initiative, and the digital library to name just a few—that warrant further exploration to determine our ability to achieve leadership and excellence. We must examine each of these, and others that will no doubt be suggested as we go forward, to identify those endeavors that will serve the university best in realizing its larger aims. Ultimately, we must recognize that our success in interdisciplinary endeavors will depend on our ability to make a coherent set of outstanding appointments across several disciplines.

In moving forward, we must recognize that our most valuable resource is faculty time, ideas, initiative, and leadership. The setting of priorities cannot be solely a top down effort. We must have a mechanism for providing small-to-medium-sized seed grants to faculty who have ideas that could spawn important and strategic research activity and generate high impact. Such a mechanism—a fund for faculty initiatives—will be critical to assuring all our colleagues that there are opportunities at Rice to develop plans that can bring both individual and broad institutional success.

Setting Priorities and Achieving Excellence

Substantial resources will be required for our success in the range of ambitions we are beginning to formulate. The outcome of our efforts will depend not only on our ability to secure those resources, but also on our capacity to make hard choices and define our priorities. As the schools develop their strategic plans and identify those areas and departments in which they will invest, seven factors elaborated in the Call to Conversation should be considered. This order does not indicate the relative importance of the criteria, and the weight attached to each of the criteria may differ across disciplines.

  1. The possibility of making new and important contributions to knowledge;
  2. The social importance of the subject matter;
  3. Student demand for courses and teaching in that area;
  4. The possibility of achieving national preeminence in that area;
  5. Opportunities to leverage the endeavor both internally (with other departments and centers) and externally (with other institutions in Houston);
  6. The availability of entrepreneurial and visionary leadership to guide the endeavor; and
  7. Our ability to secure external funding.


In sum, these criteria encompass leadership, leverage, excellence, impact, and intellectual merit.

While choosing priorities can be fraught with the potential for conflict, we will succeed by recognizing that the choices we make are necessary for the institution as a whole to advance. Our success will require strategic decision-making at all levels—from departments to centers to schools to the central university. Schools and departments should seek outside reviews on a regular basis as part of their strategic planning. Our centers and institutes must also engage in similar strategic processes. We must have regular, ongoing, and transparent processes of assessment and review to assure we are making the most effective choices possible.
 
Comments

I think the school should be very selective in choosing which graduate programs should be expanded, and which should perhaps be contracted, regardless of the understandable desire of each department to improve its reputation and national standing. —Faculty member

All Rice faculty argue that they need to expand their graduate program in order to be better. Before giving any resources, you need to have an effective, impartial evaluation of the graduate programs in each of the departments. —Faculty



Of critical importance is our ability to reduce or discontinue those endeavors at the university that do not sufficiently serve our goals so that we can commit greater focus and resources to our priorities. Similarly, we must carefully evaluate the efficiency with which we use and administer our resources. We must be willing to change the way we do things if doing so will provide a higher level of service or a more effective use of funds, space, or other resources.