Desert Companion

Higher Ed: Research Engine

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Research
Illustration by Brent Holmes

What does the recent top-tier research designation mean for UNLV and UNR?

Skeptics could be excused for wondering if UNLV and UNR made Carnegie’s 2018 list of universities with “very high research activity,” commonly known as “R1” status, by a fluke. The last time the list came out, in 2015, it included 115 schools. This year’s list, with Nevada’s two big public universities, had 130. And whereas the list was published every five years from 2000 through 2015, the latest one came out in December 2018, shortening the wait to three years. Is Carnegie playing the soccer coach who gives every kid a trophy for simply showing up? What does “R1” mean — not just to UNLV and UNR, but also to students, parents, and taxpayers?

The answer is complicated. It starts with a point made by the project director of the Carnegie Classifications himself, Victor M.H. Borden, a professor at Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research. In an August 2018 op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Borden laments the “unintended consequence” of his project. He writes that distinguishing doctoral universities by levels of research activity has “contributed to an unfortunate conflation of research activity with quality or excellence.” He reminds us that “having more research activity does not directly indicate differences in quality.”

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In other words, the list is a taxonomy, not a ranking. UNR and UNLV are assigned to the category of institutions with a high level of research activity. How is that measured? Carnegie’s basic criteria are the number of advanced degrees an institution confers and the amount of money it spends on research. The R1 category is currently reserved for institutions that awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees and had at least $5 million in total research expenditures.

For honorees, it’s a powerful recruitment tool. Acting UNLV President Marta Meana says that R1 status helps to recruit research faculty “because it shows that we care about and invest in that.” And it has a trickle-down effect, adds Mridul Gautam, UNR’s vice president for research and innovation. He rattles off a list of discoveries and patents coming out of Reno in recent years, noting, “These outstanding discoveries, followed by translational work, attract the best of faculty.” Grad students, in turn, follow good professors.

UNLV and UNR spend well beyond $5 million on this endeavor — $66.3 million and $105.9 million, respectively, in 2017. Included in those amounts are $25.3 million of UNR’s own money, and $29.8 million of UNLV’s; in other words, funding that doesn’t come from the government, competitive research grants, and so on. What’s the bang for these bucks?

Gautam used the UNR medical school’s work on rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases to demonstrate research expenditures’ direct impact on people. “Look at the sub-Saharan fungal meningitis outbreak,” he says. “By the time you take a sample and get it analyzed, it’s weeks, months … They’ve developed tests to do diagnostics very quickly. And they’re commercializing it as well.”

Gautam and Meana say that Nevadans benefit, too, through the magic of tech transfer, the process through which research leads to business development, jobs, and economic growth. And that cycle in turn attracts other companies and researchers that support it.

Tesla, for instance, would naturally be more attracted to a community with a serious research institution than to one without. The car company collaborates with UNR on workforce development, and in October 2017 signed a five-year research partnership with UNLV to study and improve its manufacturing processes. Both schools also cited examples of startups resulting from work done on campus, and the influence of local concerns on specific projects.

Tech transfer has its pitfalls. A 2017 article in the Journal of American College of Cardiology pointed out the potential conflicts that researchers face when doing commercial work. And a 2018 study by a group of MIT scientists found that a small number of institutions is responsible for most of the commercialization activity, meaning most of the others need to improve their tech transfer processes.

Regardless, citizens want to know whether the institutions of higher learning that they send their kids and taxes to are doing a good job. If they believe those institutions’ jobs is not just information dissemination, but also the teaching of critical thought, experimentation, and exploration, then isn’t investment in research a good way to demonstrate they’re on the right track?

Finally, the incentive for the universities to keep improving is built in. R1 status isn’t permanent. When Carnegie starts on a new list, it wipes the slate clean and re-evaluates all potential candidates to ensure they’re worthy of the coveted R1 designation. “The goal going forward,” says UNR’s Gautam, “is to maintain it.”

 

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