Both the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology see research as vital to their academic mission and the economic well-being of the region.
But in the years since the recession and economic turmoil, government sources that provide the bulk of funding for sponsored research have made continual cuts. Grants have been slashed or at best stayed the same while the number of grant applications has increased, making the process much more competitive.
Still the two universities combined received sponsored research funding of nearly $400 million in the most recent fiscal year. And overall both universities are on an upward trend over the past decade, though within the last five years the funding environment has gotten considerably more difficult.
Sponsored research at the University of Rochester reached $347 million for the year ended June 30, 2012, down from the previous two years when funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pushed it above $400 million.
RIT's sponsored research total also fell because of a large grant coming off its books. The university received $43.7 million in research funding for the year ended June 30, 2012, a drop from $58.4 million in 2011. University officials note that the 2011 total was higher due to a $13.1 million grant to the Golisano Institute for Sustainability.
To maintain an edge, both UR and RIT have revamped the systems for making funding requests. Support for researchers has increased as the universities invested in areas of strength, making them stronger candidates for future funding.
Those efforts have begun to pay off, and each university has remained competitive with peers.
"The funding environment is drastically different than five years ago, driven by difficulties in state budgets," said David Bond, director of sponsored research services at RIT. "At the same time, the competitive pools of applicants faced by federal agencies have doubled in the past five years, but their budgets really haven't. So we've seen more and more agencies have more good ideas than they can recommend funding for."
In addition, Bond said, awards often have been delayed and sponsors have tried to negotiate some awards lower.
Keeping an edge
For both RIT and UR, the best way to stay competitive is through strategic hiring.
"We're hiring faculty in many new disciplines, and they are more attuned to research than professors were a decade ago," Bond said.
RIT has added some internal funding initiatives to encourage faculty to develop devices or solutions that meet specific needs. This plays to the strengths in engineering and collaborative efforts and produces faculty members who are more active in seeking funding, Bond added.
Funding success at UR also has come as the result of investments in faculty, said Robert Clark, senior vice president for research and dean of the Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the university.
"The bottom line is that our competitiveness around funding opportunities is greatly dependent on the quality of faculty we recruit and retain," he said. "We've had some great successes in recruiting in recent years, and our faculty members traditionally have been very successful in getting funding."
The university's grant proposals have been accepted at a rate two to three times the national average, Clark said.
RIT runs an interactive, two-day workshop known as Grant Writers' Boot Camp to prepare researchers for the proposal process. This workshop is meant to help principal investigators successfully propose and manage externally funded projects while learning persuasive grant writing.
Participants prepare draft proposals in advance of the workshop and provide feedback to one another. The best proposals earn seed funding of $5,000 each to help develop a better foundation for external funding.
The winners are able to revise proposals or create second submissions for grants, giving them an advantage over their peers, Bond said.
"Statistically speaking, the odds of a proposal winning go up significantly with a second or third submission," he said.
At RIT, an overall emphasis on grant submission has helped the university reach a record number of proposals in the past year. Overall, 353 principal investigators submitted more than 700 proposals, Bond said. Five years ago, about 300 researchers submitted some 450 proposals.
UR has a similar program that solicits proposals from faculty for research ideas that are more mature, past the basic science and engineering level needed to attract federal funding but not quite ready to be spun off to a company outside the university.
The university uses its Technology Development Fund to further these projects, making grants of $50,000 to $100,000.
"We give them some more time in the university to increase the success rate before they go out and turn that technology into a separate venture," Clark said.
The university has a separate activity to provide seed funding to new ideas, Clark added. These grants help projects that need a little more work before they can be funded from external grant makers.
"Most of the funders like the National Institutes of Health need some kind of preliminary results to show you're successful," Clark said.
Investments in the structure for developing grant proposals have led to more success at UR. It added staff whose focus is to help faculty with some of the legwork needed to submit proposals, Clark said.
"The time it takes to prepare a proposal is significant, and you don't want to submit a low-quality one that doesn't stand a chance of being funded," he said. "We now have staff that helps out with some of the boilerplate stuff to putting a proposal together so the faculty members can focus on the core science."
As difficult as the past few years have been for research funding, the future offers no hints of relief.
Bond said the coming year adds a degree of uncertainty absent even from the last recession. The sequester has imposed deep cuts on federal grant-making agencies, but the extent of the cuts and how they will be made have not yet been fully determined.
Bond still believes RIT will continue to hold its own in sponsored research funding by playing to its strengths.
"For most of its history, RIT was a teaching university, and we didn't begin to do research at a competitive level until the early 2000s," he noted. "But despite basically coming from nowhere, we've done very well in many disciplines, and it helps that we have some disciplines that are unique and at the forefront of what the world is doing. That's given us an edge that we'll continue to use."
Clark said universities will retain their important place in research because of the advantages they offer.
"For universities in general, our overhead is low compared to our peers, making us very cost-effective in research," he said. "All the research universities in the United States have built a certain infrastructure to support a capacity in terms of research, and that research is critical to the economic health of the nation."
If the nation's research portfolio were to decrease by even 15 percent or 20 percent, it would have a devastating ripple effect, Clark said, so while funding may be constrained, research universities need not fear it ever dropping too dramatically.
The importance of research in the local economy is even greater, Clark added.
"We're a city that was once driven by two to three large companies but now has evolved into a city with numerous technically driven companies," he said. "We have on the order of 60 companies working in the domain of optics."
The large concentration of technology-based companies ensures that Rochester and its universities will retain a place of importance in funding, Clark said.
"We talk a lot about New York State being the nation's true leader in optics, but the reality is that Rochester is New York and the nation's leading place to get optics research and optics manufacturing done," he said. "We as a community will continue to leverage strengths and have shown we can be agile and adaptive."
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