December 11, 2018

Shared resources to accelerate 21st century research

The intellectual horizons that constitute the special province of a research university draw students and scholars with curious, roving, original, and courageous minds. Stanford’s ecosystem should give our entire research community an environment in which we can explore to the limits of our talents and imaginations and thereby contribute to the human quest for understanding and innovation.

Long Range Planning (LRP) gives us the opportunity to design our ecosystem with modern and future research trends in mind. As we reach the midpoint of the LRP Design Phase, I’d like to share three observations about the changing nature of research and the ways in which LRP Design Teams will help us to adapt.

Trend #1: Changes in federal funding put innovation at risk. The university will continue to make the case in Washington for the importance of federal funding, which is the irreplaceable mainstay of funding for research. Funding trends in the past year were encouraging, but we worry that over the long term a growing federal deficit and other important spending priorities could constrain the federal investment in research. The changing nature of funding makes it more difficult to conduct early-stage or risky research. Our principal investigators write compelling proposals and spend taxpayer dollars effectively, but principal investigators often find that proposals are more likely to be funded and renewed when they include preliminary data and propose work that is likely to produce at least some tangible value. We can seek alternative forms of funding, not to replace federal funding, but to explore transformational ideas that might create a new field of scholarship, redefine the boundaries between existing fields, or provide a pathway to new frontiers.

Trend #2:  To answer the key questions of our time, we need even larger, more diverse, more flexible teams. Modern research questions often transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and require dynamic approaches to team formation. To develop sustainable farming practices, for example, we may need historians and data scientists to identify long-term trends, earth and environmental scientists to explain those trends, engineers to develop better sensors, policy experts to recommend best practices, and farmers to define “actionable information.” We can solve societal problems only with teams that vary in composition, size, scope, and duration.

Trend #3: State-of-the-art resources for research are becoming more impactful, yet too complex and expensive for individual use. Researchers in science, engineering, medicine, the arts, and the humanities cannot afford to acquire every advanced tool or dataset for the exclusive use of their own research groups. We must think in terms of shared resources—those that not only drive our own research but that also establish a scientific “watering hole” where scholars of different types can congregate and collaborate. Think of the traditional library. Since the beginning of human scholarship, libraries have brought scholars together to benefit all who teach and learn. We can create modern communal resources for data collection, imaging, making, and modeling.

Stanford’s Long Range Planning process is responding to all three of these trends.

Powering the most innovative research

The Design Team called Flexible Resources seeks to create nimble, flexible structures that allow Stanford researchers to pursue their best ideas wherever they lead, whenever they occur. We imagine fellowships that will allow graduate students to pursue the most exciting ideas without constraints. We imagine seed grants that will support faculty to conduct early-stage or risky research. We imagine workshops and seminars where researchers can engage with potential collaborators to identify opportunities and challenges. And we imagine internal awards to support interdisciplinary teams that are pioneering new areas of research.

Three Design Teams called Imaging, Making, and Nano, and one Discovery Team called Research Computation and Data Services, are developing plans to create and enhance shared “platforms” such as shared resources for data, computation, imaging, and making. We imagine remarkable datasets that scholars can access in a secure computing environment. We imagine state-of-the-art tools for imaging material and biological systems from the nanoscale to astronomical scales. We imagine spaces where designers and creators can make everything from art to new biomaterials. These Design Teams will address not only the opportunities and possibilities for platforms but also their structure and governance: we want experts to retain local control and some degree of autonomy, but we also want to assure that all members of the research community enjoy easy access to these platforms, just as generations of students have enjoyed easy access to the library.

Stanford’s long-range planning process and its Design Teams will help us to succeed in a changing research environment. They will enhance the depth and breadth of our research enterprise. They will help us to solve societal problems and to unlock scientific mysteries. Their effects will ripple out beyond our campus by training the best professors, industrialists, and non-profit leaders in all sectors of society that depend on our research ecosystem.