A team of University of Michigan professors have created a new model for funding academic research that potentially eliminates months of delay from when an idea is born till the money arrives to put it in play.
They hope the rapid-funding approach will help their peers at Michigan compete in an increasingly fast-paced research community. (U-Mich, with $1.24 billion in annual research funding, is the second-most-productive research university in the nation, behind Johns Hopkins.) Ideas that used to languish for months or years in poorly circulated academic journals now see instantaneous release online and can be shared by all. Michigan administrators believe the concept, an apparent first among the nation’s research universities, represents the future of scholarship on university campuses.
“If I publish a paper in science, there are thousands of people who will read it even before it comes out,” said Mark Burns, professor and chair of chemical engineering at Michigan. In the digital age, “it’s really the scholars who are able to respond very quickly who will succeed.”
Burns created the new funding model, called MCubed, with professors Alec Gallimore and Thomas Zurbuchen, both associate deans in the College of Engineering.
In the traditional model, a researcher has an idea and then launches a torturous quest for funding to realize it. Along the way, the professor must write various grant proposals, submit them and wait for approval and funding.
That leisurely tempo “was OK in the past,” Burns said, “because the pace of research and the pace of publishing were kind of disjointed. The speed of communication now is essentially instantaneous.”
The new concept puts start-up funding in the researcher’s hands immediately. To access the cash, all the scholar must do is enlist at least two colleagues who agree that the idea has promise and are willing to commit time to it.
The general concept is that any idea good enough that three or more researchers will line up behind it is worth further exploration. Once three researchers decide to “cube” their talents on the project, each will receive $20,000 from a $15 million pool of Michigan funding. It’s enough money to hire one or two grad-student helpers and fully develop the idea.
This initial exploratory phase is key to determining whether an idea has merit. If so, then the team can seek larger, more ambitious funding sources to bring the project to scale. If not, it can be abandoned, with minimal waste in time or money.
“Cubes” needn’t be limited to three: Twenty or 30 faculty can pool their talents, tap much more start-up money and open a full-scale research center in a matter of days or weeks. Research at that pace simply is not possible under the traditional model, the scholars say.
MCubed is set up to encourage big, bold, risky ideas. Researchers might not ordinarily pursue a risky idea, because of the time involved in securing even the meager funds to explore whether it has promise.
“In the traditional system, faculty are often forced to do research based on what will get funded, as opposed to what’s the best idea or what is most important for society,” Burns said, in a prepared statement. “Today those decisions are being made by external parties, and not by the best scientists in the world. MCubed will change that.”
In the new Michigan model, faculty essentially vote with their feet. If colleagues coalesce around an idea, that sends a signal to the university that it is probably a good one; no professor may pursue more than one idea at a time, so choices must be made. One member of each research “cube” must be from a different academic department, a provision that ensures projects will reach across disciplines.
As many as 250 projects will be funded in the pilot program, which starts in the fall.