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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Ideas, grants and public benefit continue to drive research

The University of California system prides itself on its leading role in worldwide research, and the UC Davis campus is no different.

From tenured faculty and graduate student projects to on-campus research institutes and the Undergraduate Research Center, UC Davis serves as a major contributor to the UC system research pool.

“[Faculty are] constantly doing research. One of the reasons we’re called a research university is [because] that’s really what it’s about,” said Molly McCarthy, associate director of the Humanities Institute at UC Davis. “The expectation is that our tenure-track faculty, assistant, associate and full professors are doing research all the time. They are researchers; they are scholars who also teach. They live and breathe their research. They do it when they’re not teaching, they do it when they’re teaching.”

Darrene Hackler, executive director for Humanities and Arts Research Development in the UC Davis Office of Research, said that professors are evaluated each year under certain categories, including teaching and research. At a research university like UC Davis, research is weighed more during evaluations than at other institutions.

“If you go on to graduate school, most likely you’ll have a master’s thesis, you’ll have a dissertation — and a lot of that work often builds your body of research, of which your questions might come out of for early work,” said Hackler.

For many researchers on-campus, projects start with an idea, and ideas can come from several sources.

“Ideas for humanists and social scientists come out of conversations that they have with their colleagues and [rely] on some of the work that they had done in the past,” McCarthy said.

Once an idea is proposed, there are multiple possible sources for research funding, including the federal government, the state government, private institutions and private corporations.

“We’re one of the leading research universities in the United States,” said William Lacy, a UC Davis sociology professor and founding vice provost of University Outreach and International Programs. “Just in the last 15 years since I’ve been here we’ve gone from about $250 million annually, which is a fairly significant amount of money, to $750 million annually. Most of that money comes from the federal government through competitive grants where our scientists compete with scientists all across the country, and we do very well, because we have very good scientists.”

In the fields of humanities and social science, research is often done on an individual basis, with faculty coming up with their own ideas and doing the work on their own. Some apply for grants to fund time away from the university or travel to other places for new materials and research perspective.

“We’ll send out funding notices, which are opportunities for a person to submit a proposal in this themed area that we think a professor is doing research in already,” Hackler said. “How much can they adjust their research question and their research interests to what that funding notice is about is also something they have to decide as an individual researcher.”

In most cases, humanities and social science research does not have to go through the university’s Office of Research, as the office is not concerned with these types of grants. On the other hand, scientific research proposals, which might include the use of UC Davis resources and be subject to ethical concerns, are screened by the Office of Research.

“If you’re submitting a grant proposal from any agency on behalf of the University of California, it has to go through the research office,” Lacy said. “It has to be reviewed to meet [UC Davis’] policy standards.”

Lacy also mentioned that private corporations only provide around 10 percent of the university’s research funding, and there are policies in place to make sure that the goals of private companies overlap with the goals of the public university.

According to Hackler, funding for scientific research often exceeds funding for humanities and social science research, simply because it is cheaper. Whereas scientific research is often a collaborative effort, requiring several people’s work and space, McCarthy said humanists’ and social scientists’ greatest need is time.

The product of research can also take many forms, each with a potential benefit for the university. On the scientific side, the product might even be a patentable invention or discovery, in which case there is potential for commercial development on top of contributing to the field in a larger sense.

“The university is an academic institution. It’s not oriented toward commercialization, but it is oriented toward technology transfer,” said David McGee, executive director of InnovationAccess at UC Davis, a patenting unit within the Office of Research. “One of the missions of the university is public benefit through research and education. The most fundamental and by far the largest amount of technology transfer that occurs at the university is publication of research results. The faculty are oriented toward conducting academic research, not toward coming up with commercial ideas that are going to get licensed to make money.”

Commercialization of a product may not be the goal of the researcher, but McGee pointed out that it helps to compensate the university for the cost of the research while giving recognition to the researchers in the form of 35 percent of the net revenue from the product.

“We average about 200 inventions disclosed to this office a year. I’m sure there are more potentially patented inventions that are not disclosed to us, but that’s simply because faculty do not necessarily realize that they have a discovery that may be potentially patentable,” McGee said. “We try on a continuing basis to educate faculty and staff about what is a patentable invention [and] how to disclose the invention to us. It’s an ongoing education process.”

Patenting not only helps with compensation through commercialization, but is also an important part of benefiting the public with discoveries by UC Davis researchers.

“The idea is to take the knowledge and put it to work, to get it out there, and one of the arguments for patenting is if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get extended because nobody will take the risk of generating something that somebody else can steal,” Lacy said. “The investors take it to the next step. You can do the basic research and the applied research, but somebody has to develop it. If the intellectual property is not protected, then the investor doesn’t have an incentive to develop it, [and] then some really good technology or knowledge doesn’t get extended to society.”

In terms of the humanities and social sciences, researchers might write books or articles which further discourse in their field and contribute to the reputation of the university.

“A lot of our department building within the humanities and others is [because] we want faculty who are really well-respected, have good reputations and are leaders in their field of research,” Hackler said. “The whole idea is that we want to attract faculty that are going to attract the students who want to study with them, especially as they go on through a master’s and Ph.D. type of program, and those individuals that go out and get jobs in academia or other jobs that would point back to UC Davis having a really great program.”

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