More than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States confer degrees. Yet, no more than a hundred or so institutions can be considered world-class research universities. What is the difference?
November 11, 2015 - Author: Stephen Hsu
More than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States confer degrees. Yet, no more than a hundred or so institutions can be considered world-class research universities. What is the difference? Research universities don’t just impart knowledge to students — they create it. Faculty members at a research university are expected to be at the frontier of their specialized fields, pushing the boundaries and making their students aware of the cutting-edge questions and technologies that will shape our future.
Michigan State University (MSU) is often ranked among the top 100 research universities in the world. With more than 2,000 tenure stream faculty members; three colleges of medicine (human, osteopathic and veterinary); colleges of engineering, natural science, agriculture and natural resources, humanities and social science; and a national user facility in nuclear physics, the diversity of work done on campus is hard for any individual to track.
I came to MSU three years ago as the vice president for research and graduate studies. It’s my job to oversee roughly $600 million per year in research expenditures, largely funded by entities such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Foundation, etc. This incredibly challenging task is central to the future of our university and, ultimately, our society. It is a daunting path that leads from fundamental research done on campus to new technologies and products brought to market and, ultimately, to wholesale changes in our daily lives and society. But it is exactly this chain of events that we are tasked with overseeing.
Universities account for most of the fundamental research conducted in the United States. Even highly profitable companies such as Apple or Google are primarily focused on work that will lead to commercial products in a few years or less. Ask an Apple engineer where the core breakthroughs came from that led to the smartphone, and he’ll point eventually to the work of many university professors and their graduate students, done at places like MSU. Ideas that culminate in huge impacts on society 10 or 20+ years later (think of the smartphone and what life was like just 10 years ago before it appeared!) typically originate on university campuses, with a smaller role played by the national labs, such as Los Alamos or Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
MSU has launched a Global Impact Initiative, and together with Provost June Youatt, we plan to recruit more than 100 new researchers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine/mathematics) in specific areas of high impact. We want discoveries that will address the grand challenges facing mankind: energy, food, water, health and others. We plan to aggressively pursue leaders who have what it takes to push MSU to the next level. Let me briefly mention a few areas in which we plan significant investments.
The cost of reading out the genetic information in DNA has decreased by a $1 million over the past decade. The applications are just beginning, and their potential is staggering. Biology will increasingly become an information science as we gain inexpensive access to the basic blueprints underlying all of the organisms — people, plants, animals, viruses, bacteria — around us.
It’s not just genomic data that are becoming overwhelmingly abundant. Cheap sensor technologies (think microchips that detect light and sound), online activity and smartphones all generate torrents of data. We’ve established a new department called Computational Mathematics Science and Engineering (CMSE) that focuses on data science as well as cutting-edge large computations. Working with data will become an integral aspect of many traditional areas, such as business and even the humanities.
MSU is a leader in this field, and we intend to invest heavily to improve even more. New molecular technologies such as CRISPR allow easy direct editing of genomes, and the applications in plants and agriculture are manifold. We have expertise in key areas such as photosynthesis and bioenergy, and we plan to emphasize the study of how plants react and adapt to environment stress, which we’re likely to see more of as our climate changes.
The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) is a national user facility for nuclear science, funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE-SC), MSU and the State of Michigan. Under construction on campus and operated by MSU, the FRIB will provide intense beams of rare isotopes (that is, short-lived nuclei not normally found on Earth). The FRIB will enable scientists to make discoveries about the properties of these rare isotopes to better understand the physics of nuclei, nuclear astrophysics, fundamental interactions and applications for society.
It’s an exciting time to be involved in research at Michigan State University. Our faculty and staff members and students will make discoveries and create new technologies with great impact on the world. Spartans Will!