Welcome to the second Provost’s Office Strategic Update, and the first of the 21-22 academic year. Periodically, we will provide Strategic Updates to communicate key details about ongoing and new initiatives in Academic Affairs; initiatives focusing on student success, curriculum, research, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. A key objective of these Strategic Updates is to provide clarity on our goals and how the various initiatives combine to drive toward a sustainable future for UWM.
In this update, we provide an update on the challenges and opportunities in meeting our research mission during the pandemic. There are some exciting new initiatives that will positively affect research at UWM, including a funding opportunity from the Research Office and the work of the 2030 Action Team that is focused on research.
Please take time to read this and future Strategic Updates and consider how all of our efforts collectively contribute to the success of UWM’s students, faculty, and staff.
Provost’s Office Strategic Update: Research
A Challenging Year
The past 18 months have been challenging for the research community at UWM. The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant interruptions and delays to research activities and programs, beginning with a general shutdown in March 2020. The UWM Emergency Operations Center (EOC) coordinated efforts to develop and implement policies and procedures for safe operations in the face of rapidly changing conditions. The combined efforts of the Department of University Safety & Assurances (US&A), the Office of Research, and the EOC put processes in place that allowed research to proceed. This was successful: Researcher operations were restarted and no COVID outbreaks were reported in our research facilities. In addition, many UWM researchers quickly pivoted to work on pandemic-related research and submitted 48 proposals for COVID-related projects that resulted in 10 awards for $1.2M. In addition, more than 40 faculty and staff responded to a call by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of Southeastern Wisconsin to participate in regional discussions of team-based research on COVID-related issues.
At the same time, continuing issues of racial injustice, inequity, and violence came into sharp focus with repeated incidents that generated broad condemnation of persistent inequalities. At UWM, we saw an increase in engaged scholarship to address questions of inequality within UWM and the Milwaukee community. This was reflected in the ten internal “Toward an Antiracist Campus” action grants awarded for 2020-21, and the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in UWM’s 2030 Initiative. We anticipate these themes will only grow in importance and lead to new collaborative links within and beyond the University.
In terms of campus-level research parameters, there have been some changes that may reflect the challenges of the pandemic. On-campus research was limited in spring 2020 and faculty need to invest time into changing teaching modality. Looking at the metrics, the total number of all extramural funding proposals (and the associated funding requests) dropped in FY20 but rebounded in FY21 (672 proposals and $178 M), almost exactly the same as pre-pandemic (FY19) levels. Over the same time period, the total extramural awards increased from $84.6 M to $122 M. Shifting to research, the amount of awards has varied considerably; it was $26.5 M in FY19, rose to $41.6 M in FY20 (the highest level in recent years), and dropped to $20.8 M in FY21. This year we are on track to return to the award level of FY19. As is usually the case, research expenditures are more stable – we saw a slight drop in FY21 (to $28 M) from our usual expenditures in recent years of $29-30 M. This is promising given the impact of the pandemic and recent retirements.
Looking Ahead to 2021-22
In 2021-22, the Office of Research will supplement its current grant programs with a “Research Assistance Fund” program, which will provide small awards (up to $5,000) to help restart and support research activities across the University. This new program is based on suggestions and comments from researchers as they return to normal operations in the post-pandemic world. We anticipate announcing the new program in early October. In addition, we will be offering the Discovery and Innovation Grants (DIG) and Advancing Research and Creativity (ARC) programs to fund activities in 2022-23.
UWM’s 2030 Action Team includes a team that is charged with identifying specific steps to promote our research and scholarship. This effort is framed by the dynamic changes underway at UWM and more broadly in higher education, the shifting nature of research toward team-based research and community-engaged scholarship, and the need to develop an inclusive research workforce. The 2030 Implementation Report (January 2021) recommended changes to address these challenges; the upcoming work will be to act on the recommendations. To do this, the research action team will address three major themes: (1) models for flexibility in faculty work and associated reward structures, (2) graduate student stipends and professional development, and (3) campus research infrastructure. This work is beginning and some components (e.g., graduate stipends, new titles) should be ready for approval and implementation during the current year.
As we start the new academic year, I congratulate the research community in meeting the challenges of the past two years and encourage them to watch for coming developments. I also encourage you to take advantage of the services available through the Office of Research as you explore new possibilities and collaborations.