Seeding the solutions

I spoke to yet another ben­e­fi­ciary of the provost’s tier 1 inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research seed grant pro­gram yes­terday. Eliz­a­beth Dillon’s work is a bit dif­ferent from most of the people I talk to these days — she’s an Eng­lish pro­fessor. But she’s doing incred­ible things com­bining the human­i­ties and com­pu­ta­tion, mining his­tor­ical texts for the preva­lence of var­ious words. This so-​​called “dig­ital human­i­ties” approach allows Dillon to uncover social trends and cor­re­la­tions throughout his­tory. Along with David Lazer, Dillon will use the seed grant to estab­lish an inter­ac­tive dig­ital archive of early Caribbean texts.

Today my story about speech lan­guage pathol­o­gist Rupal Patel and graphic designer Isabel Meirelles high­lighted another tier 1 project, in which the team is devel­oping a pro­gram to help for­eign lan­guage learners “sound more native.” Last week a story about Swastik Kar and Yung Joon Jung’s work demon­strated how a tier 1 grant pro­vided the proof of con­cept work required to secure an NSF grant.

The whole idea of the seed grants is to achieve exactly that goal: even­tual external funding at a larger scale. When I worked in the start-​​up industry, the whole catch-​​22 issue was always at the fore­front of our minds. In order to secure funds to do the things you want to do, you need to pro­vide evi­dence that it’s worth an investor’s money. But in order to get that evi­dence, you need to do the work…which takes money. There are obvi­ously ways of making it happen — if there weren’t, the world would look a lot dif­ferent than it does today. But pro­grams that speed up that process and make it a bit easier on the researchers, giving them more time to think about research rather than bureau­cracy, are great.

Which is why I’m so excited that I keep coming across suc­cessful tier 1 sto­ries. Patel, Meirelles, Kar and Jung were all recip­i­ents of 2012 grants whereas Dillon and Lazer’s project is one of 27 awards announced just a few weeks ago. Other awesome-​​sounding projects that I want to find out about have titles like “Engi­neering Oil Pro­duc­tion from Microalgae as a Renew­able & Sus­tain­able Supply of Bio­fuels” and “Exploiting the Potent Antimi­cro­bial Secre­tions of Ter­mites for Ther­a­peutic Use in Con­trol­ling Human Gas­troin­testinal Infections.”

The highly com­pet­i­tive seed grant pro­gram is spon­sored by the office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research and Grad­uate Edu­ca­tion, which pro­vides 60% of the finan­cial sup­port, and the col­leges, which pro­vide the other 40%. “So, the more inter­dis­ci­pli­nary the work, the smaller the share per col­lege,” said Karen Drew, Director of Research Devel­op­ment & Strategic Projects. His­tor­i­cally researchers have pur­sued funding indi­vid­u­ally, said Drew, from the van­tage of a single dis­ci­pline. “This encour­ages fac­ulty to think big and to tackle com­plex prob­lems whose solu­tions are inher­ently cross-​​disciplinary.”

While the polit­ical and eco­nomic cli­mate have made it hard to secure national funding, the seed grants allow researchers to pro­vide the proof of con­cept nec­es­sary to develop a robust pro­posal in an extremely com­pet­i­tive environment.

Tier 1 is only one of the internal research funding offered to North­eastern inves­ti­ga­tors to advance inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research ini­tia­tives. These awards pro­vide up to $50K. Tier 2 grants allow fac­ulty to respond to external funding oppor­tu­ni­ties. Up to $75K can be used to pre­pare a pro­posal or sub­mis­sion or as the cost-​​sharing piece required by many grants. Tier 3 is dubbed “CRIP,” which stands for Campus-​​wide Research Ini­tia­tives Pro­gram. This one allows fac­ulty to develop major new research ini­tia­tives, cen­ters and insti­tutes. It pro­vides up to $150K.