Houston voices

UH experts weigh in on the funding gap for female researchers

Universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

The researchers had a hypothesis. Women faculty, they predicted, would be more successful than their male counterparts at earning private funding – from industry, from nonprofit groups, from charitable endowments. That was about relationships, after all, an area where the popular literature suggests women excel.

The numbers told a different story.

A review of faculty research funding conducted by the Center for ADVANCING Faculty Success at the University of Houston – funded by the National Science Foundation to help recruit and retain female faculty, and especially women of color, in STEM fields – found that women and men had similar success rates when competing for funding from federal agencies. With industry funding, however, the disparities were greater.

"It's about networking," says Christiane Spitzmueller, an industrial psychologist and managing director of the UH center. "Men do more of that. Women aren't primed as much for networking and self-marketing."

No one tracks the numbers nationally, and not all universities report a gender disparity. What is clear is that working with industry and nonprofit groups has drawn new attention in academia amid concerns about stagnant or dropping levels of federal research funding and increasing academic interest in finding solutions to some of society's thorniest problems. To take full advantage of the opportunities, universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline.

Opportunity knocks

Industry needs these partnerships, too.

"Companies are realizing to be competitive, particularly in high-tech domains, they can't rely on only their internal resources," says Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of Research and Industrial Partnerships at Pennsylvania State University. "They have to look to universities and other external sources to fill that pipeline of innovation."

Some researchers are already fully engaged with industry. Others aren't interested.

Then there is the middle group. "They would like to engage more with companies," Fortin says. "They haven't done it much, and they need more help, explaining how the process works, the contracting."

His office – and those at other universities seeking to increase their interactions with the private sector – can help.

How to approach industry

Research administrators can help by developing policies for intellectual property, licensing and royalty issues that arise from academic-industry partnerships. Companies want to know how those issues will be handled upfront.

Ultimately, however, it's about the individual faculty member. And it requires persistence.

"The big thing is not to sell yourself short," says Rebecca Carrier, professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern University. "Maybe they're not going to be interested in precisely what you want to work on, but they might be interested in a variation of it."

Look for common goals. And prepare for a different type of relationship.

What to expect

Federal funding agencies generally require an annual report, with little or no interaction at other times. Not so with industry funding.

"When you're working on a project industry cares about, you may report in every six months, or conduct monthly or biweekly teleconferences. You may collaborate with their researchers. You may send your students to their site," says Elyse Rosenbaum, Melvin and Anne Louise Hassebrock Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Rosenbaum also is director of the Center for Advanced Electronics through Machine Learning, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center.

Sometimes the work is about solving a specific industry problem, whether that's high workforce turnover or limiting methane emissions on oilfield drilling rigs. Sometimes, as Samira Ali, an assistant professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered with her first industry grant, the goal is more global.

Ali is directing one of three centers that are part of a $100 million, 10-year initiative from Gilead Sciences Inc. to address HIV/AIDS in the southern United States.

The payoff

Ali had never worked with industry funding, but the project was a good fit with her research interests. It also wasn't something the federal government would be likely to fund, making the partnership a pragmatic choice.

Another benefit? Carrier, who is director of the Advanced Drug Delivery Lab at Northeastern, says connecting with industry ensures she remains focused on real-world problems.

Working with the private sector is a constant reminder of the end goal – in Carrier's case, finding answers to questions about the mucosal barrier in the intestine, with an eye toward enhancing the absorption of medications and nutrients, as well as understanding links between the gut and overall health.

"It's important to stay in touch and in tune with people who are trying to make a product so that I know what I'm doing matters," she says.

The 411 in industry funding

What type of projects?

  • Short-term, often for a period of one year
  • Practical, focused on a specific product or project
  • Industry support for basic science is unusual but not unheard of

How is it different for government funding?

  • Generally less money, for a shorter period of time
  • Fewer restrictions but can require more flexibility
  • More contact, from biannual or monthly conference calls to sending researchers to work at the company, or having their researchers come to your lab
  • A new vocabulary. Terms understood to mean one thing by researchers and federal funding agencies may be used differently by industry

How to connect?

  • Network. Attend conferences that are important to the industry with which you'd like to work.
  • Educate yourself about the problems a particular industry needs to solve, and think about what solutions you may be able to offer
  • Be persistent and don't be afraid of rejection
  • Take advantage of personal connections – friends, neighbors and former classmates who work in industry may help you connect on specific projects

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Jeannie Kever works with the UH division of research as a senior media relations specialist.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Catch up on space news — from new partnerships at Rice University and the latest snub for the Space City. Photo via NASA.gov

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news.

The Ion awarded $1.4M to launch Aerospace Innovation Hub

The Ion will be home to the Aerospace Innovation Hub, thanks to a federal grant. Courtesy of Rice University

Through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center and DivInc, The Ion has been awarded $1.4 million in federal funding to create its Aerospace Innovation Hub. The ASCI-Hub will support and develop regional minority business enterprises addressing aerospace-related challenges.

"Landing this award is another win for the region that leverages the unique strengths of the crewed space program at NASA JSC," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, says in a news release. "As Houston was critical to landing men on the moon in the late-'60s, the Ion's Aerospace Innovation Hub will be key not only to advancing the future of spaceflight, including the mission to Mars in the future, but also to tackling challenges facing our everyday lives here on Earth."

The hub will provide NASA's expertise and resources across robotics, medicine, health support systems, additive manufacturing, and more — as well as community events, education and training, and an accelerator program.

"We're eager to partner with the MDBA, Rice University and the Ion to help develop and grow minority entrepreneurs and accelerate innovative and tech-forward solutions in Houston," says Vanessa Wyche, deputy director of the JSC, in the release. "This partnership builds toward NASA's goals to enhance scientific and technological knowledge to benefit all of humankind and catalyze economic growth, as we propel commercialization of space and extend our presence in the solar system."

Opening in 2021, the Ion announced $1.5 million in grant funds in September. Those funds are going toward accelerators, which will collaborate with the Aerospace Innovation Hub.

"While we have taken many small — and valuable — steps over the past few years, this is one giant leap forward for our efforts to promote sustainable inclusion in Houston's entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at the Ion, in the release.

The Air Force announces 6 potential sites for Space Force base — and Houston misses the mark

Houston will not be considered for the Space Command HQ — but Texas isn't completely out of the running. U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez

The United States Department of the Air Force announced the six candidate locations for the U.S. Space Command Headquarters — and Houston didn't make the cut.

The six locations include:

  • Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Offutt AFB in Nebraska
  • Patrick AFB in Florida
  • Peterson AFB in Colorado (where temporary operations are located)
  • Port San Antonio in Texas
  • Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama

The Air Force evaluated self-nominated cities from across 24 states based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense, according to a press release. U.S. Space Command Headquarters location announcement is expected in early 2021.

"We are disappointed that Houston is not among the finalist locations for the U.S. Space Command," Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. "We believe we put together a strong case for why Houston should be chosen. We will continue to work with the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the military on future opportunities and we will remain vigilant in our pursuit of aerospace industry opportunities for this region."

Rice Space Institute to collaborate with Canada

The Rice Space Institute has a new partner is Canada. Photo courtesy of NASA

Rice University's Rice Space Institute has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas to collaborate on space science and technology.

The parties made the collaboration official at a virtual event on November 20. RSI Director David Alexander OBE, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, says the partnership is key to the continued commercialization of space exploration.

"What's different about this agreement is that with the rapid growth of commercial space worldwide and the strength of the aerospace industry in Houston, it presents a new pathway for potential interactions between Canadian science and industry and commercial entities not just in the Houston region but around the world," he says in a news release. "It's a nice, complementary aspect to our connection with NASA."

The United States has collaborated with Canada on space exploration for decades, and Canada's government is committed to advancing space technology.

"This MOU with the Rice Space Institute comes at an exciting time in human space exploration," says Rachel McCormick, the Consul General of Canada in Dallas and Canada's official representative in the U.S. South Central region, in the release. "In 2019, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $1.9 billion over 24 years for the next generation of smart, AI-powered space robotics for the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway program.

"We are also providing $150 million over five years for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program," she continues. "LEAP will fund the development and demonstration of lunar science and technologies in fields that include AI, robotics and health."

Trending News