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

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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.

Public universities can be negatively affected during a government shutdown — especially within its research department. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

As the partial government shutdown loomed, academic institutions explored ways this might affect their research operations. Although we expect delays in processing proposals and award payouts, the impact on the institution may have been much less than expected. Consequently, most of the impact occurred at the individual principal investigator, or PI, level. That is where research that required federal resources came to a halt.

This is also the case for researchers at the Borders, Trade, and Immigration (BTI) Institute at the University of Houston. As a result of the shutdown, they were unable to start any new projects. Sadly, the government furloughed their program manager at the Department of Defense- Science and Technology Office of University Programs.

Education initiatives and multiple other research projects pending review were stuck along the "assembly line," as approvals did not happen during the month of January.

Consequently, BTI is a granted institution. Current projects were able to continue with slight delay due to the requirement to have meetings with the DHS representatives for their projects.

This scenario echoed across the research enterprise, as other researchers found themselves in similar situations.

Business as somewhat usual

Moreover, Nicholas Bond, climatologist and associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, felt the pinch of the shutdown and chronicled his experiences of how it impacted his research on climate and oceanography of the North Pacific.

Academic institutions across the country became burdened with the task of assuming unexpected financial responsibilities. In mid-January, the lapse in governmental funding forced The Ohio State University to temporarily cover the costs of unbilled expenditures to the tune of about $3 million. Harvard University continued to pay stipends for fellowships. They did this despite the fact that the shutdown included the federal funding agency.

Many faculty members, including our own, were able to continue working on their projects with the expectation of administrative delays. No new funding opportunities were issued, panel reviews were postponed and no new grants or no-cost extensions were awarded. For the most part, it was business as (somewhat) usual.

The big picture

It may be safe to say that the partial shutdown acted more as an inconvenience to the research enterprise than anything. Which is great news! Especially for the University of Houston, who has recently ignited the campus with the announcement of the 50-in-5 initiative. This ambitious program will increase the research and scholarly output by 50 percent over the next five years.

While this article focuses on the inconvenience of administrative delays, it's critical not to skim the surface. It may seem minute when compared to recipients of public assistance fearing not receiving benefits, but short-term implications are likely.

Keep in mind that most often, grants are not awarded by a single payment from the agency. Timelines are established between agencies and the institutions, and funds are released accordingly. Because of this, it's likely that research programs and educational initiatives across the academic research enterprise will not receive their funds on schedule.

What the future holds

Imagine, if you will, a conveyor belt. A system designed to allow items to move through a process with maximum efficiency. Because of the partial shutdown, research proposals that were in queue for review or funding experienced interruption along the conveyor belt.

Once disruptions to processes within federal agencies happen, it becomes inevitable that there will be delays further down the line.

Claudia Neuhauser, associate vice chancellor/vice president for Research and Technology Transfer for the UH System, warns of the "ripple effect" of the downstream delays and the potential impact on expenditures. We'll have to wait until the end of the year when annual reports are prepared for answers.

For now, it's a question of what the aftereffect will be.

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

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.