Research Productivity Grows
University Researchers See Record-Breaking Support
The last fiscal year ended showing excellent growth for the FAU research enterprise, with more money coming in to support it. When the new fiscal year started, metrics for the first quarter showed that the university was not just continuing that streak, but shattering all previous quarterly records.
The first quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year saw a whopping 92% increase in research awards when compared to the first three months of the last fiscal year. External sponsors awarded FAU faculty $38.9 million for research projects. Last year, that number was $20.2 million for the same time frame. The university’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.
It’s the largest first-quarter haul for FAU research ever, according to the Office of Sponsored Programs. About half of the increase can be attributed to nearly $10 million the Office of Naval Research awarded to the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute as part of an $11.2 million project. (Read story on page 25.) Even without that grant, the first quarter broke all records, Sponsored Programs said.
“The grants awarded to FAU reflect the hard work faculty members are putting in seeking external funding to support their studies,” said Daniel Flynn, Ph.D., vice president for research. “It puts the university on par with top-tier public research universities at a time when good science and technology are needed more than ever in our society.”
The roll university researchers are on includes many other recently announced multi-million-dollar grant awards. Consider this:
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently awarded an FAU Harbor Branch scientist $2.2 million to study harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee.
- The National Institute on Aging awarded $5.3 million to a group of FAU scientists and engineers to test systems that can detect early warning of cognitive decline in older drivers.
- The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded another group of faculty $2.4 million to train graduate students in data science technologies and applications.
NO SIGN OF COVID-19 SLOWDOWN
FAU’s research enterprise continued its upward trajectory — even as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country for part of it.
Taking into account projects funded by external organizations and internal funds, FAU spent and invested $67 million on research for the 2020 fiscal year.
As the pandemic hit, researchers faced travel restrictions. Labs, equipment and supplies became scarcer or harder to access. And fewer students could work in research labs. Despite those obstacles, they kept their projects moving forward.
Across the board, metrics show a rise in research productivity. Sponsors funded 476 projects, up about 14% from the previous fiscal year. Faculty submitted 655 proposals, seeking nearly $300 million in funding. The number of submissions is about 6% more than the previous year and up nearly 21% from five years ago. Since 2018, sponsored research expenditures have risen at a rate of 9% each year.
Instead of being slowed by the pandemic, FAU researchers got busy studying it. Federal agencies awarded the university $1.5 million for COVID-19 research-related projects — in a period of less than six months.
While it’s impressive that university scientists, engineers and scholars dug in and worked harder during the lockdown, the growth of the research enterprise stems from a strategic approach and programs put in place over the last five years, research administrators said.
They point to President John Kelly’s Strategic Plan for the Race to Excellence 2015-2025, which outlines four focus areas of research strength called pillars. Those pillars turned into university-wide research institutes. The university invested in hiring and building up the infrastructure needed to attract top-tier researchers. That investment in the institutes has paid off at a rate of $2.8 to every $1 invested, according to Daniel Flynn, Ph.D., vice president for research.
In addition, the Division of Research has created a slew of new initiatives to support FAU researchers. It established the Office of Research Development, which focuses on helping faculty write proposals and strengthen larger, institution-wide grant applications. Before the pandemic shutdown, the division also created a number of new events designed to spur collaboration and showcase FAU research. They include a public lecture series at the Boca Raton Public Library called Research in Action; the Research Café, which brings faculty from disparate backgrounds together for short talks; and the Research Showcase, which drew hundreds from both inside and outside the university to hear about FAU research. Some of these programs have now gone online and are growing on virtual platforms like Zoom. Many of them are seeing record participation.
Last year, the division launched an initiative called “We Are Your Team,” targeting new faculty hires. It introduces them to the many research support services provided at the university. The research development office also started the Early Career Academy, a program focused on new faculty talent, providing in-depth support for establishing research careers. It’s already had an impact. Several faculty members in the inaugural class garnered early career and first-time federal grants, such as the prestigious NFS’s Early Career Award and the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“Our team is providing support to faculty who are on fire to do their research,” said Jeanne Viviani, director of the research development office. “We are excited to help them achieve their goals.”
The numbers show it.