5.1 Introduction

How should the research university be organized to do the work it must do? What are the explicit and implicit functions and structures that are employed by the university research ecosystem to carry out its mission? The objective of this chapter is to explain the different organizational approaches to perform and support research.

“Functions” refers to the activity or purpose for a given organizational unit. “Structures” explains how activities are directed, organized and coordinated, how information flows, and how decisions are made. Three traditional organizational structures are functional, divisional, and matrix [Devaney 2020]. Functional structures are departmentalized based on common job functions. Divisional structures comprise multiple smaller functional structures. Matrix structures combine elements of functional and divisional models and people are grouped into functional departments of specialization and further separated into divisional projects. This chapter describes a variety of structures for organizing research organizations. It also includes several examples and models for structuring partnerships between universities, federal labs, and industry.

5.2 Research Functions and Structures

Research is distinguished not just by its field, but also by its character, which can be captured across many dimensions, such as evolutionary (low-risk) versus revolutionary (high-risk) and disciplinary (fits within institutional structures) versus interdisciplinary (requires skills from different disciplines). Optimizing a mix of research across dimensions will produce, on average, better results than any single strategy [PCAST 2012]. It follows that in order to tackle complex societal issues, research universities should also strive to optimize a mix of research opportunities.

Departmental Labs and Research Groups

A defining feature of leading research institutions is the systematic combination of education and investigation [Arai 2007]. It is the university’s talent pool, breadth of expertise, and infrastructure that ensures it will be a leading research institution in the years to come [UIDP 2020].

At the base of this infrastructure are “departmental” labs and research groups. These structures are operated and administered inside traditional departments, in close connection with academic activities. Specific formations vary. For example, Harvard reserves more than two dozen facilities exclusively for scientific research, and Texas A&M’s mechanical engineering department has more than 40 faculty-led research labs and groups covering a range of engineering disciplines in the curriculum. These labs and groups typically support graduate student research and often involve undergraduate researchers as well. Georgia Tech features a campus wide network of research labs in every major department, some managed by individual faculty members, making research a constitutive element of the educational enterprise on the whole. Experimental study through interconnected labs and research clusters is the organic base of teaching, learning, and discovery at every major research institution.

Interdisciplinary Research Institutes and Centers

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) refers to research by teams that integrate multiple bodies of specialized knowledge to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or field [NAP 2005]. These research units have a variety of names — center, institute, laboratory, initiative, or program. We use the terms center and institute throughout this section to describe IDR units within the university that exist outside the traditional departmental structure.


A comprehensive look at interdisciplinary research structures is included in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research [NAP 2005], which compiles data from 100 IDR activities, including academic, national labs, industry, interindustry, interuniversity, and university-industry. Table 5.1 summarizes the characteristics of IDR centers from this study.

Table 5.1

Interdisciplinary Research Structures (NAP 2005)

Small Academic (< 10 persons)

  • Bottom up initiation
  • Research is primary; training is byproduct
  • Loose management structure
  • Many participants have disciplinary research commitments as well

Large Academic

  • Bottom up initiation, top-down incubation and management
  • Research and training components
  • Management by directors who report directly to vice president for research or equivalent
  • Tend to be permanent features; new building, instrumentation
  • Some centers “co-hire” faculty, but faculty are affiliated with departments
  • Space allocation: mix of permanent and “hotel” facilities


  • Top-down, product-driven research
  • Focused on research, not training
  • Structured management
  • Discrete timelines and end points
  • Fluid movement of researchers between teams

National Laboratories

  • Blend of top-down, mission-driven research and bottom-up initiation
  • Research and training components
  • Structured management
  • Discrete timelines and end points
  • Fluid movement of research between teams

Interdisciplinary, Interuniversity, University-Industry

  • Top-down, societal needs-driven research (can be basic and applied)
  • Research and training components
  • Part-time directors with advisory boards
  • Often initiated with large starting grants (such as National Science Foundation-funded Science and Technology Centers and Engineering Research Centers)
  • Except for seed grants, faculty must provide own grant money
  • Programs may offer an “immersion” IDR opportunity

The management structure of universities reflects a unique combination of attributes, and includes aspects of a functional structure, but also divisional structure. IDR centers in leading universities typically aspire to produce matrix-type organizations across the enterprise, bringing expertise from separate colleges and research organizations, including support staff, to help the center execute.

Organizing Model

Definitions for IDR centers and institutes vary significantly and often convey little or no information about their scale, scope, or degree of permanence [EAB 2009]. More important than a center’s designation is where it falls within the university hierarchy. Tiering clarifies the institution’s top priorities and ensures that the appropriate level of oversight and support is targeted at each level [EAB 2009]. High-performing centers can be moved up the hierarchy as they meet certain performance standards. Figure 5.1 illustrates one approach to differentiate four organizational levels based on breadth of research, funding sources, and reporting line.

Figure 5.1

These organization levels are very similar to the work developed at Georgia Tech to define IDR [GT 2015] which included four types of organizations: Lab/ Group, Center, Interdisciplinary Research Center (IRC), and Interdisciplinary Research Institute (IRI). Similar to the department-based centers in Figure 5.1, a Lab/Group represents the research of a single faculty member and their students and postdocs. A Center supports multiple faculty engaged in collaborative research, as represented by college-based centers above. An IRC supports interdisciplinary research spanning two or more units and addresses a strategic opportunity, similar to the university-wide center in Figure 5.1. Lastly, an IRI spans two or more units addressing a strategic opportunity, and includes economic development, thought leadership, and industry and external partner relationship management.

The differentiation between Lab/Group, Center, IRC and IRI provides institutions with structural approaches to expand a university’s research portfolio (both in terms of technology readiness levels (TRL), infrastructure, or industry partnerships), as well as policies which can be created for establishing, reviewing, and sunsetting centers; priorities can be established for allocating space and making major investments; decisions can be made for allocating dedicated versus shared administrative support; interdisciplinary hiring initiatives can be developed to create maximum impact; and training and mentoring programs can be established to develop new leaders in the institution. This model also enables institutions to consider structures for creating university-wide centers or IRIs. For example, some may grow out of college-based centers, organizing around strategic research initiatives. Others may quickly form in response to an emerging need, such as a global pandemic.

This organizing model can also help reduce the administrative burden on self-organizing groups, where the work may be smaller than a full-scale Center but larger than a single investigator’s Lab/Group [PCAST 2012]. For example, the University of California San Diego’s Interdisciplinary Collaboratories initiative provides fellowship support for groups of students (undergraduate, graduate, or professional) who work jointly under the supervision of an interdisciplinary faculty group [UCSD 2020]. Another example is the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s “virtual centers” — units that use resources on loan from other units and reset their budgets every three years based on rigorous performance evaluations [EAB 2009], resulting in a dynamic portfolio of centers that is aligned with the university’s research focuses.

An example of an IRI that covers a broad spectrum of activities across TRL levels and partnerships is the Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS) at the University of Washington. The ITHS is an interdisciplinary research “collaboratory” funded by the National Institutes of Health. A goal of ITHS is to advance translational research by taking medical discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic and into the community. This requires the collaboration of many groups: academia, industry, nonprofit agencies, government, and the community. ITHS programs and resources fall into one of three categories: innovative research partnerships, which are programs to develop partnerships and research links with communities, private partners, and governmental partners; research resources, which are programs to provide critical resources needed by translational researchers, from basic science to clinical outcomes to research; and educational and career development programs to provide education in all aspects of translational research as well as formal degree-

Applied Research Units

Applied research centers or institutes conduct open, proprietary, or classified projects that are more strictly controlled. Applied research units support a variety of core activities, including: interdisciplinary training for students; capacity-building technical assistance to government agencies and organizations; economic development; transforming basic research into commercial products and processes; transferring technology to industry through joint research with companies, licensing of technology, sale and auction of intellectual property, and spinoff of startup companies; and dissemination of leading-edge knowledge and practices [NRC 2013]. Applied research units receive external funding through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements. Some also have a base of financial support from teaching professional development courses.

A special category of applied research units within the university ecosystem is the University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs). UARCs are not-for-profit entities sponsored and primarily funded by federal agencies, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in particular, through a long-term, strategic relationship with the U.S. government. They conduct R&D across multiple research classifications to provide federal agencies with capabilities that cannot be effectively met by the federal government or the private sector alone [Gallo 2020]. In addition, UARCs function as trusted advisors for the government, operating in the public interest with objectivity and independence.

Today, there are 13 DoD-funded UARCs, tasked with providing DoD direct access to scientific expertise in emerging technical areas to quickly apply basic scientific knowledge to their mission-critical problems [GAO 2018]. Examples of DoD UARCs are Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Penn State University Applied Research Lab, and Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). UARCs affect university R&D expenditures significantly [NSF 2019]. In 2018, six universities with UARCs were ranked in the top 25 for R&D expenditures, including Johns Hopkins, Penn State, and Georgia Tech. While R&D funding is one measurable attribute associated with UARCs, the impact of these organizations on their home university is far more extensive. They have the potential to play a greater role in DoD’s outreach to companies and organizations not traditionally affiliated with DoD [DBB 2016]. This unique expertise can benefit universities in working with industry and transitioning technology into the user community.

Developing trends in the scope and function of applied research units show a growing demand for expanded services. For example, the Illinois Applied Research Institute performs translational research focusing on the development and validation of technologies and serves as a facilitator between industry and the university’s engineering campus. The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station solves problems through applied engineering research, technology development, and collaboration with industry. Arizona State University’s ASURE lab serves as a tech-translation incubator. Applied research units also provide unique opportunities for students to gain real-world expertise to complement their academic pursuits. Many UARCs have established undergraduate and graduate research assistantships or internships, providing students with opportunities to conduct research on a variety of topics with real-world applications. Examples include the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE@APL) program at Johns Hopkins, Penn State’s Open Diversity Outreach Opportunities in Research (DOOR), and GTRI Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URIP) at Georgia Tech.

University-University Collaboration

Collaboration among universities is a powerful mechanism for tackling bigger and more complex problems. This section provides several models and examples of these collaborations.

The NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERC) support convergent research, education, and technology translation at U.S. universities. These ERCs create “interacting foundational components that go beyond the research project, including engineering workforce development at all participant stages, a culture of diversity and inclusion where all participants gain mutual benefit, and value creation within an innovation ecosystem that will outlast the lifetime of the ERC” [NSF website].

Another model is the NSF Big Data Innovation Hubs program. The data hubs play four key roles: Accelerating public-private partnerships between industry, academia, and government; growing R&D communities that connect data scientists with domain scientists and practitioners; facilitating data sharing and shared cyber infrastructure and services; and building data science capacity for education and workforce development [BD Hub 2020].

The National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Awards program supports a national network of medical research institutions — also called hubs — that work together to improve the translational research process. The hubs collaborate locally and regionally to bolster innovation in training, research tools, and processes, and to enable research teams to tackle scientific and operational problems in clinical and translational research.

The Big Ten Academic Alliance includes 14 universities that share expertise, leverage campus resources, and collaborate on innovative programs. Faculty benefit from shared network infrastructure and leadership potential, and Alliance members saved $37 million in library licensing and $100 million in combined purchasing power over a five-year period [BTAA 2018].

A different example of university-university collaboration is the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC). The MCURC is a collaboration of scholars, food service leaders, executive chefs, and administrators. The MCURC is a nationwide network of 60 colleges and universities that use campus dining halls as living laboratories for behavior change [MCURC 2020]. The Collaborative advances research focused on plant-forward diets, food waste reduction, and drivers of consumer food choices to transform eating habits and food systems.

University-National Lab Collaboration

Universities also have numerous partnership opportunities with national laboratories. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has 17 national laboratories whose purpose is to advance science and technology to fulfill the DOE mission. These laboratories span a range of R&D topics, from clean energy to particle physics to human health, materials science, and biology.

National laboratories are administered and managed by external organizations (with the exception of National Energy Technology Lab), and some are located within and operated collaboratively with universities. In these joint operation relationships, faculty members hold appointments, laboratories support students and postdoctoral researchers, and they partner on major research efforts. Examples of these joint operations include: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab at the University of California, Berkeley and the Oak Ridge Institute at the University of Tennessee. A number of models for collaboration and strategic alliances have been developed.

These alliances represent expansive research relationships governed by a longer-term commitment to collaborate in interdisciplinary subjects. For example, Sandia National Laboratory’s Academic Alliance program consists of major partnerships with five universities (including Georgia Tech), and also has a program focused on historically Black colleges and universities [SNL 2020]. Similarly, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has developed strategic relationships with seven universities [UT-Battelle 2020] (including Georgia Tech), and developed the Oak Ridge Associated Universities program, a consortium of more than 120 universities. ORNL has also developed a joint appointment program with universities in Tennessee called the Governor’s Chairs program. Funded by the state and ORNL, the program attracts top researchers to work jointly across both institutions in selected areas.

Other models of university-national lab partnerships include joint research-education programs and joint operations. For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Colorado School of Mines have developed an Advanced Energy Systems degree program.

University-Industry Collaboration

Policymakers have long regarded collaboration between industry and research institutions as fundamental to global innovation and economic development [Papermaster 2008)]. Below are a number of such engagement models.

Triple-Helix Engagement. The convergence of government, universities, and industry in a tripartite collaboration can take place in multiple ways. A prominent example is Manufacturing USA, the network of 14 institutes led by heads of government, industry, and universities and administered by the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office [America Makes 2020]. Another example is the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which initiates collaborations among government, academia, industry, and nonprofit patient organizations to develop translational interventions that improve healthcare [NIH 2020].

Corporate Initiatives. These stem from strategies constituted directly by corporations for the purpose of leveraging intellectual resources to achieve broader impact than could otherwise be achieved by the corporation alone. A recent example is Google’s announcement concerning Covid-19 research in collaboration with 31 universities and research institutes [Dyrda 2020].

Corporate Affiliation Programs (CAPs). CAPs provide structures for corporations and their representatives to interact and collaborate with academic researchers and students in areas of common interest. CAPs include multiple corporate members to create a forum for a specific research area, to connect students with industry, and to connect companies with the academic community. Examples include relationship-focused CAPs, such as the Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering Industry Affiliates Program at University of Washington, and research-focused CAPs like Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab.

Corporate Partnerships. A large percentage of university-industry collaboration takes place by means of project-specific engagements governed by bilateral research contracts. There is a growing trend among industry and research institutions to create clearly defined frameworks for engagement, increasingly through strategic partnerships with a select number of carefully chosen universities. Such partnerships allow these companies to develop joint programs in which they work closely with researchers over a sustained period. In many cases they invest in a joint laboratory or in setting up their own research center on a campus. Examples include the Siemens Knowledge Innovation Centers, the Boeing Strategic University Program, the BMW University Cooperation Program, and the BP Energy Biosciences Institute.

Corporate Innovation Centers. These comprise a range of concepts designed to co-locate corporate researchers and developers, university researchers, and startups to promote exposure and collaboration. Research-driven constructs include Penn State Behrend’s Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center and the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Technology Center at Georgia Tech. Business-focused constructs include MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative. Finally, student-centered initiatives allow companies to engage students on campus or on corporate sites to work on customized solutions for specific problems in unique, applied-work experiences, such as Arizona State’s Practice Labs.

Competition for industry-funded research is fierce. Among the top 50 research universities in terms of total research funding, the top 10 have, on average, five times more industrial support for university research than the bottom 10 [Atkinson 2018]. These leaders have either strong biomedical research programs, like Duke or Stanford, strong engineering programs, like MIT or Georgia Tech, or both, like PSU [Atkinson 2018]. There is an unmistakable correlation between the top research universities in industry funding and the top research universities in research funding overall [NSF 2019]. This finding supports the theme that government-university-industry activity operates as a feedback continuum. Government and industry do not merely accept this dynamic — they welcome, support, and rely upon it [PCAST 2020].

5.3 Enabling Infrastructure and Functions

This section examines infrastructures and functions that support university research ecosystems in fulfilling their research missions.

Sponsored Research Practices

Research administration (RA) has been recognized as a specific organizational structure within research universities. It is the middle line between the university president, or the president’s delegate for research governance, and the faculty, scientists, and students who perform the research [Kaplan 1959]. Crucially, the object of the research enterprise, scientific investigation, depends upon expressly non-scientific operational aspects in order to ensure the health and integrity of the program [Kaplan 1959]. In the contemporary era, the sheer scale and scope of research activities at major universities and their interface with sociological, political, legal, institutional, and economic forces have created specific bodies of knowledge and procedure that must be mastered, monitored, and assessed independently of the scientific investigations that they enable and protect. These resources are instantiated within RA. Institutions’ organizational RA structures vary, but there are responsibilities that must be satisfied regardless of organizational structure. These spheres include:

Research Relationship/Business Development

A fairly recent trend within the academic research ecosystem is the research or “business” development office (Development Office), which allocates resources specifically to the cultivation of relationships with potential sponsors and collaborators to improve funding, increase capital resources, and enhance and expand networks to achieve university research goals [Ross 2019]. In a workshop hosted by UDIP, 86% of more than 30 participating universities reported operating centralized Development Offices, in conjunction with decentralized researcher-managed relationships on an ad hoc basis [UIDP 2020]. Virginia Tech exemplifies an alternative model, and centralizes the management of all industry relationships, reserving the right to transfer relationship management to research departments as appropriate [VT 2020]. A substantial majority of the organizations interviewed for this study, both sponsors and peer institutions, favor a centralized function for connecting sponsors with researchers and tracking systems that make overall activity levels and key personnel between the research institute and its collaborators visible.

Research Integrity

“The public will support science” only if it can trust the “institutions that conduct research” [NRC 2002]. The modern research enterprise is complex, supporting far-ranging activities that transcend disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries. This serves to multiply the responsibilities of “managing integrity at scale.” Reliance on the competence and character of individual researchers or local operations within units and labs is insufficient, as the actions of single individuals can have far-reaching consequences for the larger organization. Universities implement both top-down and bottom-up strategies around the conduct of sound research; continuously educating researchers in the elements of responsible research, ethics, security, and safety; establishing organizational structures to manage compliance; establishing a culture that inspires integrity; and developing and maintaining processes to evaluate and enforce positive behavior [LERU 2020].

A sine qua non of any serious system of integrity is a centralized office of research integrity and assurance (ORIA). Common domains include conflicts of interest, research safety standards and protocols, ethics in human and animal research methodologies, and export control. New risk vectors in foreign influence and espionage are the latest to receive heightened investigation [UCA 2019].

Research Contracting

Sponsored research contracting carries a number of risk factors. Federally sponsored research activities must conform to federal rules while avoiding conflicts with state law. The complex interplay of the two regimes requires knowledge and expertise. Industry contracting is equally complex. Industry contracts are subject to state law in all cases, yet are not subject to imposed federal contracting frameworks. This invites negotiation on every term. An additional layer of complexity emanates from federal tax law, as most educational institutions are subject to regulation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue code of 1986, as amended. A governing precept under Section 501(c)(3) is the “private benefit doctrine,” which prohibits a nonprofit entity from conveying benefits to a private entity that are any more than incidental to the nonprofit’s authorized activities. The private benefit doctrine runs the length of all research contracts between nonprofit institutions and all third parties, affecting nearly every major heading of a sponsored research agreement.

Beyond the general complexity of negotiating the contracts that underpin industry-sponsored research agreements, each contract carries its own challenges based on the uniqueness of the underlying project. For example, some projects are in areas with greater likelihood of marketable intellectual property, while others enact more fundamental investigations with a lower probability of invention disclosure. Similarly, some projects rely on industry-owned or controlled background intellectual property, while others have university-owned or government-funded background intellectual property as a basis. In all these cases, the impact on contracts is significant, potentially affecting nearly every section of an agreement.

Simultaneously, each negotiation requires an understanding of the “big picture” — that is, the overall impact of each agreement on departments, individual faculty and students, and the university as a whole.

A related responsibility is helping industry sponsors understand the academic landscape, which is quite different from working with commercial partners. For example, a university’s need for indemnification for a sponsor’s commercial use of intellectual property is the opposite of a company’s usual expectation to be indemnified for imperfections in the intellectual property it makes use of. Other terms, like a university’s mission of open dissemination of knowledge through publication, can be at odds with industry’s need for secrecy around research and development efforts.

A practice employed by some universities is the use of standard contracting models. These models present a framework for universities to address critical terms and conditions and eliminate the need for companies to struggle in developing forms that fall outside the lines of their commercial activities. Negotiators of industry-sponsored research agreements can access resources from the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP) in Columbia, South Carolina. UIDP has developed model forms known as the Contract Accords [UIDP 2020a]. The set consists of 16 contracting topics, including statements of work, indemnification, publications, background and foreground intellectual property, export control, research gifts, specialized testing and services, and conflicts of interest. Georgia Tech is a major contributor to this effort.

Georgia Tech has also created a series of published forms known as the Contract Continuum [GT 2020b], designed to enable industry sponsors to view four possible ways of engaging with the university. The unifying theme is a modal allocation of intellectual property and academic freedom rights that correspond to the maturity of the science and/or technology under study: a Basic Research Agreement for earlier stage fundamental investigations, an Applied Research Agreement for mid-stage proof-of-concept collaborations, a Demonstration Research Agreement for later stage improvements and/or expansions of existing technology, and a Specialized Testing Services for the validation of proposed use cases. Other notable programs include the University of Minnesota’s MN-IP program [UMN 2020] and Cornell’s Gateway to Partnership Program [CU 2020].

Research Accounting and Financial Management

Financial risk and compensation for sponsored research activities exist largely outside of the institutional budget for educational activities. Schools that receive federal funding for research are subject to an entire regulatory regime under 2 CFR § 200. Centralized management of financial effects of sponsored research activities through RA is a standard best practice to ensure compliance.

IP Management and Commercialization

A critical process in the U.S. innovation ecosystem is the transfer of emergent intellectual property to the public. Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) are the standard structures in major research institutions serving to evaluate, protect, manage, and disseminate its intellectual property [Nag 2020]. TTO activities include identification of protectable intellectual property, determination of ownership, attachment of property rights at law, determination of the appropriate method of dissemination, determination of appropriate measure of compensation for third-party rights, if any, and negotiation of third-party rights, as applicable.

The Bayh-Dole Act imposes a comprehensive framework for the allocation of intellectual property arising from federally funded research. Standard university policies arising from this nexus are:

Respect of the inventor’s ownership rights under U.S. patent law [COGR 1999]. This requires TTOs to have reliable means of discovering inventions through a sound internal disclosure system and making the correct legal analyses of inventorship. Universities must also understand and take the actions required to ethically and legally obtain ownership rights from individual inventors before attempting to exercise property rights for the university’s own purposes.

Allocation of third-party rights via licenses rather than outright sale or assignment [COGR 1999]. The intent of Bayh-Dole is for universities to retain ownership of inventions in view of universities’ particular mission to disseminate research results, including intellectual property, for the public good [NRC 2011]. Universities lose the ability to regulate the development and deployment of technology when ownership is assigned. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of leading universities that work extensively with industry retain ownership of intellectual property and offer licensing rights to intellectual property resulting from sponsored research efforts [UIDP 2020c].

Sharing royalties with inventors. This is standard practice among universities that work extensively with industry [MIT 2020], [GT 2020b]. It has the added effect of standardizing metrics to market norms to avoid fairness concerns for inventors. Upfront licensing compensation models for sponsored efforts are still in the minority among leading research institutions [UIDP 2020c]. Among those institutions that offer upfront compensation models, metrics are typically based on historic data that are thought to generate reliable averages [UIDP 2020c].

It is important to remember that there are several methods and goals for the dissemination of IP. Most institutions reflect the “entrepreneurial university” model [Walshok 2014], whose goal is the efficient and broad dissemination of university-generated ideas and technologies across a variety of modalities, including publication of results, open source release and development, third party licensing, and startups [NRC 2011].

A useful range of measures includes number of publications, invention disclosures, patents issued, and licenses issued; average revenue per license; and volume and scope of organic development efforts such as startups and accelerators represent. Data shows that universities with high engagement in federal and industry sponsored research tend to reflect correspondingly high technology transfer outputs [Nag 2020].

Interdisciplinary Work

While the incentives to participate in interdisciplinary work are many, there are also hurdles to overcome. Disincentives can include: units do not value or reward interdisciplinary work; the annual review process doesn’t respect the time to develop interdisciplinary collaborations; tenure models lack incentives for interdisciplinary work; academic turf wars; and difficulties in communicating across disciplinary cultures [UD 2011].

A consortium of 10 universities held a conference on Fostering Interdisciplinary Inquiry to understand the barriers [Dubrow 2008] and discussed eight functional areas where institutional policies and practices can hinder or facilitate interdisciplinary activity: academic administration and faculty governance; education and training; research; development and fundraising; finance and budget; space and capital planning; equity and diversity; and collaborative technologies. Pertaining to the functional area of research, other details include: whether the university has IDR faculty positions and how they are assigned; the university’s infrastructure for producing and enhancing large interdisciplinary grant applications; the allocation of overhead return and scholarly credit for grant awards at the university; and institutional efforts to foster IDR and successful IDR collaborations or centers [Dubrow 2008]. In this section, we consider four areas — IDR positions, interdisciplinary hiring, financial incentives, and culture of collaboration — and how institutions foster inclusive communities for interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinary Research Positions

Traditional approaches to collaboration across units, including joint, courtesy, and adjunct appointments, are focused on teaching. While these roles are important for the execution of mentoring and advising students in particular colleges, they do not inherently foster collaboration, nor create a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. In fact, they often create barriers between tenured and non-tenured faculty. Non-tenure, interdisciplinary leadership roles can serve as a reward for past accomplishments, and also as an incentive to continue serving the university’s mission to strengthen interdisciplinary teaching and research. A variety of non-tenure roles have emerged to break down these barriers, ranging from distinguished professors to fellows to new campus leadership roles in academic units. A few are described below.

Brown University’s professors-at-large invite exceptional scholars to participate in the intellectual and academic life of the university. The JHU Bloomberg Distinguished Professors bridge academic divisions, conduct and stimulate innovative research that crosses disciplinary boundaries, and train a new generation of native “interdisciplinarians” [JHU 2020]. Fellow-in-residence positions devote time to projects within an interdisciplinary community; examples include the Center for Ethics at Harvard and the Obermann Center at the University of Iowa.

The Michigan Society of Fellows selects outstanding applicants for appointment to three-year fellowships in the humanities; the arts; the social, physical, and life sciences; and in the professional schools [UMI 2020c]. The Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts is an interdisciplinary group of scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and selected natural sciences. Fellows are appointed for three-year terms to pursue research and teach half-time in their academic host department [PU 2020].

Creating opportunities to more tightly connect academic units and applied research organizations on campus through leadership roles can help break down boundaries and enable connections across the research enterprise. These types of positions signify the importance of translational research relationships; titles include Associate Chair for Applied Research, Partnerships, and Outreach; Associate Dean for Applied Research and Innovation; Associate Dean for Industrial Relations; Associate Dean for Outreach; and Associate Dean for Research and Entrepreneurship.


In the pursuit of IDR, institutions are often impeded by traditions and policies that govern hiring, promotion, tenure, and resource allocation [NAP 2005]. The challenge is how IDR centers, which generally operate without the ability to hire faculty or grant degrees independently, attract faculty and students.

Joint appointments are a traditional approach; they can serve as a bridge between disciplines, increasing awareness and building collaborations, and can also be a form of cost sharing. However, there are challenges in promotion and tenure, apportion and credit of time to units, and divided loyalties. To address this, Michigan State has posted best practices for managing joint appointments [MSU 2015].

Co-hiring between colleges and centers is another approach. The University of Washington Program on the Environment (PoE) is a horizontally organized university-wide institute. The PoE does not have faculty of its own. Instead, it brings together faculty and students from across the university to augment existing programs and offer integrated, interdisciplinary programs. Instead of allocating faculty lines, the university president sets aside a permanent budget that the PoE uses to hire faculty in collaboration with departments and schools. Co-hiring enables the university to benefit from the presence of scholars who would not readily fit into preexisting departmental frameworks [NAP 2005].

Cluster hiring is a third approach, which enables an institution to build a strength in a targeted area that cuts across multiple departments and can be used to attract star researchers. While several challenges have been documented on this hiring approach [Eyrich 2020], a number of universities have a cluster program. For example, the cluster hiring initiative at Wisconsin was launched in partnership between the university, the state, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation [UWM 2020].

Financial Incentives

Interdisciplinarity can begin with simple steps and behaviors that promote the culture and practice of collaboration. Funding opportunities to work across disciplines and departments can take many forms. For example, fellowships, indirect cost return, and accelerator/seed grants that support basic, application-driven, and interdisciplinary research are incentives that can help change behavior [PCAST 2020].

Interdisciplinary faculty and students are hard to attract because they don’t easily fit in a single college, but have expertise across many colleges. Further, it is hard to recruit students in non-STEM units due to limited research funding. Thus, universities are creating fellowship programs to engage students in IDR. The Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship awards three-year fellowships to doctoral students engaged in IDR [Stanford 2020c]. The University of Minnesota Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship enables Ph.D. students engaged in IDR to study with faculty at one of the university’s interdisciplinary research centers or institutes [UMN 2020].

Revising and standardizing systems of indirect cost return, overhead return, and cost-sharing arrangements to make them simpler, explicit, and more equitable is another financial incentive for promoting IDR. Several examples of these approaches are described in [Dubrow 2008].

Offering seed grants to scholars from different disciplines can be used to start conversations, fund students, or jointly develop research proposals. Over half of the institutions represented in the Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research survey indicated they provide “venture capital” for interdisciplinary work. Amounts ranged from $1,000 to $1 million, but centered at $10,000-$50,000 [NAP 2005]. Grant duration varied, but most tended to be one- to two-year awards.

A key challenge in such programs is balancing broad distribution with a small number of strategic priorities. A number of models have been developed. The Stanford Bio-X interdisciplinary seed grants fund proposals that enhance research related to bioengineering, biosciences, and biomedicine [Stanford 2020b]. They award approximately $4 million every other year in the form of two-year seed grants at $200,000 per project. The University of Michigan’s Mcubed seed grant program [UMI 2020b] calls for faculty from at least two different campus units to form a collaborative trio, or “cube,” and request either $15,000 or $60,000 to advance their idea.

Culture of Collaboration

A collaborative interdisciplinary culture needs to cross academic units, applied research institutes, government partners, and industry. A number of methods can be used to create this culture, including centers, degree programs, co-advising students, and campuswide initiatives that foster innovation. A few examples are described below.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Consulting (CIRC) is a consulting service for mathematics and statistics. The CIRC supports interdisciplinary research for the UMBC campus and general public, providing services from free initial consulting to long-term support for research programs [UMBC 2020]. The CIRC also strives to provide mathematics and statistics students with consulting experience for industry and academia jobs.

The University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have partnered on a number of efforts such as the Joint BioEnergy Institute, as well as partnered with the University of California, San Francisco on innovative brain research. This collaboration provides UC Berkeley personnel with ongoing access to cutting-edge technology and opportunities to collaborate with the national lab [UCB 2020]. These partnerships have led to numerous Nobel Prizes and scientific breakthroughs.

The Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Advanced Energy Systems have partnered on M.S. and Ph.D. degree programs. The Mines NREL program provides researchers with a broad background in the energy sector, expertise in the selected area of focus, and dedicated research under the guidance of Mines and NREL advisors [UCSM 2020]. Similarly, the Draper Labs Fellow program gives graduate students the opportunity to conduct thesis research at Draper with their faculty advisor (there are 10 participating universities, including MIT) and a member of Draper’s technical staff.

In 2012 the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill developed a two-year campuswide academic theme called “Water in Our World” [UNC 2012]. Tackling this key issue facing society was a top recommendation in the institution’s strategic plan, and this initiative enabled faculty to share ideas and collaborate across disciplines, as well as with other local universities [COACHE 2014].

5.4 People

Sustaining the modern research enterprise requires mobilizing, empowering, and supporting all who are willing and able to serve.

Diversity and Inclusion

Enhancing the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in the academic enterprise encompasses both equity and the overall quality and outcomes of scientific work [NASEM 2020]. STEM disciplines have lower representation of women and people of color in tenure-track and leadership positions. A recent NAS study on this topic emphasizes the need for an intensive, data-driven approach to understanding, addressing, and assessing initiatives within institutions.

A key first step is access to data. Institutions typically track research metrics at broad unit levels without incorporating demographic details relating to research operations. Data tracking and related assessment efforts are typically siloed, and sponsored research program data are separate from human resource data. Data systems within institutions can also be expanded to incorporate demographic data (including rank) with various research activity data (seed funding, proposals, cost sharing, awards, center affiliation, engagement in collaborative teams, leadership, and publications, among others). An effort currently underway at Arizona State University [ASU 2020] studies interdisciplinary production of the full faculty using bibliometric data through an intersectional lens, that is, the ways in which faculty experiences are shaped by gender, race, ethnicity, foreign-born status, sexual orientation, disability, rank, and discipline.

Leadership Training

Management and leadership competencies in faculty and staff are necessary for research institutions to thrive. Management knowledge and skills are necessary to control and provide the processes that enable research and creativity. Management of administrative process improvements and other efficiencies enable creativity and innovation that are at the heart of research universities.

Models for leadership development exist, ranging from on the job training and formalized office-level or university-wide programs, to tapping into external organizational offerings. Examples of universities with modules for academic and grant management or basic and advanced leadership development include Virginia Tech [VT 2020], University of Michigan [UMI 2020], and Tufts University [Tufts 2020a]. These modules encompass coaching and mentoring, basic budgeting and day-to-day operations, leading change, and building and leading a diverse community. Programs that administer modules targeted specifically for effective leadership in STEM research settings tend to be affiliated with medical schools. Examples of such programs include those at Tufts [Tufts 2020b], Duke [Duke 2020], and Stanford [Stanford 2020].

Research Faculty

University research is conducted by both tenured and non-tenure track faculty. Tenure-track academic positions commonly include teaching, research, and service, with ranks that include Assistant, Associate, Full, and Distinguished Professor titles. In contrast, non-tenure track faculty may be focused entirely on research, and are often exclusively funded by grants and contracts. Common research titles include scientist, engineer, and associate, and can be further classified by rank (e.g., junior, senior, principal). For simplicity, we will distinguish these types of university researchers as Academic Faculty (AF) and Research Faculty (RF).

Research Faculty are critical in enabling universities to build and optimize research capacity. They appear in universities in two ways. First, they are hired within academic colleges and may lead projects, or support AF on their projects. As part of a college, they may also take on additional responsibilities such as teaching and advising students. Second, RF are hired by applied research institutes or centers, where they work primarily with other RF on projects.

While conducting research is a common activity of AF and RF, the goals for AF and RF are often quite different, and so are evaluation metrics and promotion processes. For example, AF focus on teaching and training students in addition to conducting research, whereas RF focus on project development, deliverables (software and hardware), and program management. A common challenge is the implicit creation of “pecking orders,” in which RF are not seen as peers or the same caliber of researchers. Because RF are often 100% paid by contracts, they often do not receive comparable professional or career development opportunities (such as organizing conferences or writing papers that are not direct contract deliverables), or have deliberate reflective time for development of new ideas, as AF. This can lead to RF losing opportunities and even being terminated, implying a significant level of vulnerability in these “soft money” roles [Ulm 2014].

A number of efforts have been directed to improving the system of support, promotion, review, and definition of academic rank for non-tenure track faculty. For example, Penn State established new ranks for non-tenured teaching and research faculty, including Assistant Research Professor, Associate Research Professor, and Research Professor. This signals a peer relationship between AF and RF, while differentiating their areas of focus. Similar research ranks have been established at Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell.

Other efforts include building community in RF across different units, optimizing promotion criteria for distinct RF roles, including RF in broader university leadership development efforts, and creating dedicated financial resources for career-enhancing activities.

Recognition and Rewards

Universities take pride in receiving accolades through winning external honors and awards, as recognition by external communities is broadly viewed as an indicator of research university success.

Major research universities have their own internal recognition and rewards programs as well. Internal publicity is a powerful tool to build morale and a positive sense of community among colleagues. Most major universities have a large number of internal awards programs, and an annual awards ceremony to recognize their researchers in various categories (e.g., Best Paper, Teaching Excellence, Outstanding Program Development). Some university systems bestow awards recognizing lifetime achievement. Often, such lifetime achievement awards come with extra compensation and long-term benefits to the organization by way of new research and mentoring of junior researchers. In order to provide development tracks that do not require increased managerial/ budget responsibilities, but promote technical achievements, many companies, including IBM, Boeing, and United Technologies Research Center, have a Technical Fellow program. This title is bestowed upon the organization’s “most exceptional” technical professionals.