USC looks to transform research in the digital age
Posted April 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm in News
The path to a permanent place in the ivory tower has traditionally consisted of long, solitary nights spent poring over books or data or code, looking for a pattern no one else has spotted before, hoping ‚ÄĒ maybe even praying ‚ÄĒ that the days, weeks and months of painstaking research will culminate in publication in a major journal.
In its push to be a leader in cutting-edge research, USC is looking to break that mold.
The researcher of the future, at least at USC, will do significant collaborative work that spans specialties and disciplines, and will publish their findings in some form other than print ‚ÄĒ what form, exactly, is still being researched ‚ÄĒ according to Randolph Hall, USC‚Äôs senior vice president for research.
‚ÄúThe digital world is changing how we do research,‚ÄĚ Hall said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs changing the way faculty and students work with each other ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs becoming more synchronous and collaborative.‚ÄĚ
The university‚Äôs research programs have consistently placed USC among the top 20 research institutions in the country in the past few years. But USC is not content with consistency. It wants to drive forward, to venture into uncharted territory.
That‚Äôs where Hall comes in. Aside from ensuring all university research adheres to ethical and legal standards, Hall is responsible for research advancement, which boils down to, as he puts it, ‚Äúfinding new faculty or new people or supporting faculty to do new things.‚ÄĚ
Most of the funding for those pursuits comes from the federal government, specifically organizations like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. For the 2010 fiscal year, the university received $560.9 million in sponsored research funding, and more than 70 percent of that money was in the form of federal research grants.
The latest federal budget details significant cuts to research ‚ÄĒ NIH funding would be cut by $260 million and NSF funding by $53 million. At USC, this translates into a loss of about $4 million, or a 1 percent decrease, according to Hall.
The key to sustaining research amid federal budget cuts is to remain ahead of the increasingly cutthroat competition. Hall lists four broad areas of focus at USC he expects will keep the university competitive in the quest for grants: biomedicine and health, energy and environmental topics, inquiries into how humans interact with each other, and information science.
This last area, Hall says, is the one in which USC really has the chance to excel.
Information science, at its core, is research into how we do research. The digital revolution has brought with it a whole host of new techniques for sharing and disseminating information, and USC researchers are looking for ways these techniques can be integrated into every discipline. Much of this work is being done by the Institute for Creative Technology and by researchers in the Visual Studies Program.
The advent of digital technologies has also facilitated a move toward collaborative research ‚ÄĒ a trend that has been particularly pronounced at USC.
‚ÄúIt seems to be that USC has blossomed in this way as collaborative research is proving to produce more interesting scholarship and more interesting questions,‚ÄĚ said Phil Ethington, a professor of history who conducts interdisciplinary research on global metropolises. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just not possible in a lifetime to master enough disciplines to do it yourself.‚ÄĚ
Collaboration can come in many forms. It can mean working with colleagues within one department, or branching out to work with researchers in a completely different field. USC fosters and encourages both.
Last year, the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, launched a program called College 2020 that provides money to faculty members who propose research projects that transcend traditional departmental boundaries and aim to answer questions relevant to society. The research projects selected to receive funding this year will investigate topics like the effects of downturn and recovery on the brain and how to enhance education on immigrant integration. The first project alone will bring together researchers from six different fields, including psychology, political science, business, neuroscience, education and law. USC also has a number of interdisciplinary research centers.
Though collaboration has been standard practice in the natural sciences for some time, it is relatively new to the humanities and, to some extent, the social sciences. Ethington emphasized that there are useful ways for humanities scholars to collaborate, if they are willing.
For instance, he said, an art historian could work with a neuroscientist who understands how people process visual information. The two together can provide a unique analysis of the significance of a piece of art in a certain time period or to a certain people.
The sciences and humanities don‚Äôt always embrace each other, however. This gap often makes scholars from one discipline wary of working with scholars from the other.
But the bigger obstacle in fostering collaboration at USC has been the standards set by academe, Hall said.
A critical issue for most researchers is how to earn tenure and how to get promoted. Traditionally, professors have been evaluated based on individual contributions to the field, but USC recently rewrote its guidelines to accommodate ‚ÄĒ and encourage ‚ÄĒ collaboration.
The University Committee on Appointment, Promotion and Tenure revised its manual earlier this year to include information about how to evaluate collaborative research when considering a candidate for tenure or a promotion.
Hall‚Äôs office also launched a program called Creativity and Collaboration in the Academy last December, which aims to show professors how research can benefit them. Hall is hoping to get NSF funding for the program this year.
Additionally, the University Research Committee, which is chaired by Ethington, drafted guidelines for attributing collaborative research. These guidelines, which emphasize intellectual contribution, were passed by the Academic Senate on Wednesday.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a leftover standard of a single scholar model, at least for evaluating people,‚ÄĚ Ethington said. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs where we were running into a roadblock, because the traditional standards in the university were still saying you just have to impress your own field ‚Ä¶ Motivation can depend on how you get credit.‚ÄĚ
Though the university has taken steps to invite collaboration, which it believes is the key to being at the forefront of research, it remains to be seen if the culture can truly be changed ‚Äď‚ÄĒ but Hall is working on it.
‚ÄúWe want a structure to encourage them,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt want any artificial barriers.‚ÄĚ