Rice announces $150 million in strategic research initiatives

Plan includes campuswide investments, new hires in data science, nanotechnology

HOUSTON -- Rice University is preparing to invest over $150 million in strategic initiatives aimed at increasing its research competitiveness, establishing a world-renowned program in data sciences and bolstering its position as one of the leading centers for molecular nanotechnology research. 

"Great research universities stay great by continually challenging themselves, by searching for new opportunities, by supporting the faculty's drive to discover, create and innovate and by demanding excellence," said Rice President David Leebron. "The intellectual impact and productivity of our faculty are second to none, but the landscape for research funding has changed dramatically over the past decade. We must do everything possible to ensure that our faculty are positioned to succeed in an increasingly competitive research environment."

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Leebron said the three initiatives, which were approved by the Rice Board of Trustees at its May and September meetings, reflect a deep commitment on the part of the entire Rice community to invest in and improve its position as one of the nation's pre-eminent research universities. This new effort complements the Initiative for Students launched last year to increase resources for scholarships and student opportunities.

The plans call for a $49 million reinvestment in molecular nanotechnology, a traditional area of strength for Rice, as well as a $43 million investment to establish a world-class program in data sciences. These two initiatives build on existing strengths and include funding for 21 new faculty positions, as well as technical staff positions, startup funds and associated support.

The third initiative will promote research competitiveness broadly across the university and includes $58 million for an enhanced postdoctoral program; a "research venture capital" fund for high-risk, high-return initiatives; strengthened support services for grant writing and grant management; improved faculty networking for interdisciplinary team building; and investment in information technology for grant and data management.

Leebron said the administration began envisioning the new initiatives as Rice was celebrating its centennial in 2012. At the time, Rice was completing a eight-year capital campaign that raised more than $1 billion and wrapping up the most extensive enhancement of campus facilities in Rice's history, which included the addition of more than 500,000 square feet of research offices and laboratories. That activity was anchored by the Vision for the Second Century, a 10-point plan launched in 2006.

"Rice aspires to be world-class in everything that it does," Leebron said. "But as we enter the second phase of achieving the Vision for the Second Century, Rice must make careful strategic investment choices for the university, while also supporting the strategic plans and infrastructure needs of the schools. We have the resources both to make key investments that will support our aspirations broadly and to make distinctive and important contributions in certain strategic areas.  We identified opportunities where Rice could differentiate itself and excel at the highest level over the next five to 10 years."

He said identifying the areas in which to make further investments was a deliberative process that started with Rice's faculty, alumni and supporters and included conversations with leaders in industry, the Texas Medical Center and the Greater Houston community.

"Our faculty are exceptionally creative and ambitious when it comes to the potential of research and scholarship, and there was no shortage of ideas," Leebron said. "We sought areas where we could make important contributions both to knowledge and to the betterment of our world. The ability to secure external funding was another key, as was the ability to leverage interdisciplinary and interinstitutional support. Finally, we looked for specialties where we could achieve national prominence, attract visionary leadership and meet student demand for new courses and teaching."

Leebron said molecular nanotechnology and data sciences best met those criteria. The detailed planning about how to move forward in those fields was conducted in consultation with deans, faculty, department chairs, institute and center leaders and others. Leebron said Provost Marie Lynn Miranda made significant contributions to the proposals after her appointment last spring and will lead the efforts to transform the initial ideas into practice on the Rice campus.

Miranda said the molecular nanotechnology initiative will serve a number of strategic goals for Rice: strengthen the university's globally recognized research programs in molecular nanotechnology and materials science, grow and reinvigorate Rice's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and better position the university to compete for prestigious center-level federal grants.

"Having clusters of key faculty across multiple departments will better allow Rice to compete for highly visible, federally funded research centers like the recently announced $18.5 million Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center," Miranda said.

NEWT is a multi-institutional engineering research center that is expected to leverage more than $40 million in federal and industrial support over the next decade. It was one of three new research centers announced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) last month out of a pool of more than 200 applicants. NEWT is the first such center in Houston and only the third in Texas since NSF began the program in 1985.

Miranda said the additional investment in molecular nanotechnology will reinforce Rice's position as a world leader in that field. Rice established the world's first academic nanotechnology research center in 1993, now the Smalley-Curl Institute, and has since won more than $230 million in nanotechnology-related research funding.

Miranda said Rice is also well-positioned to achieve that kind of success in data sciences, but she cited key differences between the two areas. Data science, while still an emerging field, has a far broader intellectual impact, she said.

"Data science extends to almost every school, institute and department on campus," said Miranda, whose own research uses geospatial data to explore relationships between the environment and child health. "Name a department and I can tell you a story about how data sciences can be helpful, from processing and interpreting digital humanities collections to understanding voter turnout patterns to improving cybersecurity.

"Data sciences is a broad field of intellectual endeavor that involves developing statistical and algorithmic methods, as well as the application of those methods to solve problems," Miranda said. "We are beginning the process of engaging our faculty to determine the areas where we can stand apart and perform better than anyone else.

"The most valuable resources of any research university are the time, ideas, initiative and leadership of its faculty and students," Miranda said. "These initiatives are designed to support the extraordinary faculty who are already here in each department across our campus and to fill critical gaps that will allow us to achieve our aspirational goals.” 

She said the initiative to remain competitive in the rapidly changing research environment aims to do that in several ways. The new Postdoctoral Associates Program will work to recruit the best postdoctoral candidates to campus as well as to better integrate postdoctoral scholarly research into the university's long-term strategic objectives. All schools will be eligible to participate in the new postdoctoral fellows program. The program will be designed to boost the research productivity of postdoctoral associates across campus and will promote more meaningful postdoctoral contributions to Rice's academic success.

Miranda said the research venture capital funding will spark truly innovative and novel approaches by providing resources to quickly ascertain whether an idea is worthy of further study. Faculty from all schools will be eligible to participate.

"The idea is to provide support quickly while people are excited about trying out a new idea," she said. "And we are calling this 'venture capital' for a reason. This is a high-risk, high-return activity, which means we should expect some, but not all, to succeed; but those that pay off will provide a high return on investment. This return may take the form of extraordinary scholarship, social impact of new knowledge or new funding from external sources. The environment we are creating to encourage intellectual risk-taking will foster greater innovation. We expect applications from a broad range of fields, and this program should support faculty in all schools at Rice." 

The plans also call for an integration and coordination of the research-related functions that are currently performed in the Office of Research, the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, the Controller’s Office and the Office of General Counsel. The new approach will follow a concierge service model to support logistics, allowing faculty to focus on research and scholarship.

Finally, Rice also will invest in data systems to identify calls for proposals from a broad portfolio of potential funders and push those to faculty members with potential interest. New online tools and in-person efforts for additional faculty networking are planned to support team-building for interdisciplinary calls for proposals. The university will also strengthen its support systems for multi-investigator and interdisciplinary projects, and it will invest in IT infrastructure to increase overall competitiveness and assure compliance with federal rules.

The initiatives will be funded by a combination of allocations from endowment, reallocation of current resources, and philanthropy.