A seed in comparison to a full-grown tree is minuscule, but it’s the seed that makes each branch, leaf, pinecone, and fruit possible in the first place. A seed encompasses a tree’s entire potential and holds the components necessary for the tree to survive, grow, and flourish. In the same way a large tree owes its existence to its fetal form, a large, successful, flourishing research program can be enabled by a small initial investment. That’s the intent of Utah State University’s new faculty seed grant program.

“Over the past 10 years, engagement in scholarship, research, and creative activity by USU researchers has displayed and sustained impressive growth,” said Brent Miller, USU’s vice president for research. “Although we have a great deal to be proud of in our research programs, our research funding ranking has not kept up with some other institutions.”

In response to these concerns, Miller assembled a 15-member research focus group in spring 2007 to examine the issue and make recommendations to grow research and help USU stay nationally and internationally competitive.
“We brought in representatives from each college and major research center at USU to determine the best way we could make larger strides in sponsored research and grow our external funding by 25 percent in three years,” said Jeff Broadbent, associate vice president for research and chair of the committee. “We examined successful practices at other universities and combined them with USU’s strengths to determine the best direction for the future.”

The focus group confirmed that Utah State University has faculty strength and interdisciplinary expertise in several core areas, especially space aeronautics, sensors, robotics, hydrology, biotechnology, antiviral therapies, nutrition, information technology, and software development. Additionally, productive faculty, interdisciplinary research centers, a strong international legacy, and support from the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative adds to USU’s research climate. The key to success—as in any garden, orchard, or forest—is to maximize the right combination of species, timing, and nourishment, and that combination must be customized to location, tolerances, and external circumstances.

“To increase the volume and competitiveness of our research portfolio, we need to build upon, and grow beyond, our research strengths,” said Broadbent. “Successful research universities have adopted a more focused and proactive role in fostering an institutional culture of research, and we must follow suit.”

According to the focus group, several specific strategies can help USU increase its research productivity, including a grant-writer’s institute to assist faculty proposal development, a formal process for strategic research hires, a more complete recovery of overhead costs from research contracts and grants, and a restructure of existing seed grant programs.

“Though they yielded some significant results and impacts, the old seed grant program was sometimes viewed as an entitlement or as a replacement for external research funding,” said Miller. “It was apparent that it needed to be retooled into a more targeted program with specific goals and expected outcomes. The expectation is that it should have clear potential for maturing into a self-sustaining program.”

To that end, three new grant programs were introduced by the Research Office to USU’s faculty beginning in 2008: Grant-Writing Experience through Mentorship (GEM), Research Catalyst (RC), and Seed Program to Advance Research Collaboration (SPARC).

“These new grants represent a substantive improvement over the old system,” said Miller. “They require timely submission of an external proposal, involve a review process to improve proposal writing skills, and take into account a researcher’s current contracts and grants.” These changes, according to Miller, will enable the seed-funded research to attract more external funding.

The GEM grant provides one-year funding of up to $5,000 to enhance the professional development of junior researchers through one-on-one research and grant-writing interaction with successful research mentors.
“GEM will increase extramural funding by enhancing the proposal development skills of junior researchers,” said Broadbent. “It is a great opportunity for assistant professors and research professionals who have been at USU fewer than four years.” Just as nutrients improve the quality and growing potential of soil, enhanced proposal development can significantly boost the growth of sponsored research.

The Research Catalyst, designed to increase funding from government agencies and private sources, would be considered the introduction of new, more suited species into USU’s academic climate. RC provides one-year funding of up to $20,000 to help researchers develop new initiatives or directions in their disciplines that will lead to new externally funded grants.

The third program, SPARC, is a cross-pollinator. In an effort to create larger, stronger hybrids, it supplies one-year funding of up to $35,000 to catalyze development of interdisciplinary research teams and projects.
“For SPARC grants, we’re looking for scholarly research that encompasses more than one department, research center, college, or institution,” said Broadbent. “By funding these larger projects, we hope to help researchers secure new, large-scale, interdisciplinary grants from external sources.”

And what’s the fruit of all of this? For the first time, thirteen grants were awarded in the three categories in fall 2008.  Broadbent thinks their prospects are promising. Their subjects are varied: open and distributed learning systems in high school engineering classes, tele-intervention for children with hearing loss, and nanoparticle technologies, among others.

“To be sure, these projects will have real-world impacts—addressing education, disease, disability, and many other issues,” said Broadbent. “Because of that ability to create positive outcomes, we hope to see a high level of support down the road from external funding sources.”

Which means, in a few years, thanks to a seed, these research saplings may become full-fledged trees.