Winkler_JulieThe number of research centers on university campuses has grown substantially in the past several decades, in part a response to funding opportunities offered by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other major funding agencies. These agencies have helped to promote this organizational structure via their requests for proposals for science and engineering centers to support cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research. Universities themselves have contributed to this trend, establishing on-campus research centers to enhance extramural funding, publication and other research outputs, and student training.

Research centers vary in administration, size, and mission. Typically they lie outside the traditional departmental structure of universities, although ties to individual departments can be strong. Research centers range from those involving only a few faculty to national-level centers that span multiple institutions. Some centers are relatively ephemeral. They are established in response to a particular funding opportunity and are dissolved when that funding terminates. Others are long-lived with center members seeking ongoing extramural support from a range of funding agencies. Although research centers are now a common component of the university landscape, our understanding of the impact of these centers on individual researchers, departments, universities, disciplines, and the advancement of scientific knowledge is relatively limited. In this column, I explore the advantages offered by research centers and the challenges they pose, particularly with respect to the discipline of geography and geography departments.

A primary rationale for research centers is to foster research on complex, interdisciplinary topics and issues. When successful, centers enhance a university’s visibility within a particular research area, help attract exceptional faculty and graduate students, and strengthen the university’s overall research reputation. In addition, research centers can contribute to a university’s agility to respond to, and participate in, emerging research themes that do not fit well with existing departmental specializations or disciplinary approaches. These centers can enhance the research profiles of individual faculty as well. Faculty affiliated with a center typically are provided release time from teaching and additional research support (e.g., laboratory space, equipment). Recent case studies, including an analysis of the activities of scientists allied with the Mid-America Earthquake Center by Branco Ponomariov and Craig Boardman, suggest that, on average, faculty affiliated with research centers have higher productivity, greater collaboration, increased industry connections, and more technology transfer  (e.g., patents) than those not affiliated with a center.

But research centers also present challenges. There is the inevitable competition for limited university resources between research centers and departments, and between faculty affiliated with centers and those whose appointments lie strictly within a department. Research centers can also spark on-campus debate regarding the relative importance of disciplinary versus interdisciplinary knowledge, with potential consequences for the continued viability of traditional disciplinary departments. Faculty do not appear to benefit equally from their involvement in a research center. For instance, Meghna Sabharwal and Qian Hu discovered that senior faculty are more likely to benefit from the collaborative opportunities of research centers than junior faculty. Also, Marla Parker and Eric Welch found that women faculty are much more unlikely than men to serve in leadership roles within a research center, limiting, in their words, women’s impact on “knowledge production and the conduct of science,” both at their universities and for science in general. Another concern is whether traditional departments receive appropriate recognition for the efforts and successes of their faculty who are affiliated with a research center. Also, the proliferation of research centers is an issue. As the number of on-campus research centers grows, university resources for pursuing emerging research directions decrease because of the large capital and human investment in existing centers. Thus, the university loses, rather than gains, nimbleness. University attempts to debulk themselves of research centers in order to free up resources for new opportunities are often complicated by a lack of well-tested procedures for evaluating the performance and continuing relevance of research centers. Also, research centers become entrenched, making them difficult to sunset, and closures can cause considerable hardship for support staff and research faculty. Furthermore, the viability of research centers ebbs and flows with the availability of federal funding.

I became concerned about possible negative impacts of research centers on geography departments about a year ago, when I served on a university-wide committee charged with developing a hiring plan for a new campus-wide research initiative. As we discussed possible tenure homes for potential hires, I was nonplussed when a fellow committee member stated that university expertise in geographic information science (GIS) lies in Center X, followed a few minutes later by another member announcing that expertise in climatology lies in Center Y. Both comments elicited a quick response from me that expertise in these areas in fact falls within the Department of Geography. But this exchange prompted contemplation on whether my department’s close association with several research centers has led to a reduction in on-campus visibility for geography itself, and whether geography is more susceptible to this possibility than other disciplines. Many of our university colleagues are unfamiliar with geography as a discipline or even hold misperceptions of what constitutes geography, which may make it easier for them to assign subfields within geography, even those with “geographic” in their name, to a center rather than a department. Also, the relatively small size of geography departments compared to other departments on campus may make them more vulnerable to the negative impacts of research centers. For example, the siphoning of partial credit for accomplishments of faculty to research centers in which they are members potentially can have a larger impact on the “bottom line” for a smaller rather than larger department, especially if a substantial portion of the faculty have center affiliations.

On the other hand, geography may benefit more from affiliation with research centers compared to many other disciplines. The breadth of geography offers possibilities for participation by geographers in a wide range of research centers, providing opportunities for on-campus promotion of the discipline and hopefully increased recognition by others of the theoretical contributions and skills of geographers. Also, smaller departments, including many geography departments, stand to benefit greatly from additional resources available through their connection with research centers, such as faculty lines or support for a larger cadre of graduate students. Research centers also provide excellent training opportunities for geography graduate students, and allow for interdisciplinary research opportunities for geography faculty that they might not otherwise have. All of these can enhance the long-term success of a geography department.

Clearly, university research centers present both opportunities and challenges. Geography departments need to continuously monitor their involvement and interactions with university research centers to make certain that they take full advantage of the opportunities these centers offer, but at the same time ensure that they receive appropriate university recognition and visibility for departmental contributions to research centers. The desired end result is that the involvement of a geography department in research centers directly or indirectly furthers the careers of all faculty within the department, and enhances the department’s reputation at the university level and within the discipline of geography and the scientific community at large.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the connections between geography departments and university research centers.

— Julie Winkler

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0001

For more information on the articles referred to above see:

“Influencing scientists’ collaboration and productivity patterns through new institutions: University research centers and scientific and technical human capital” by Branco L. Ponomariov and P. Craig Boardman in Research Policy, Volume 39, pages 613-624, 2010, DOI:10.1016/j.respol.2010.02.013

“Professional networks, science ability, and gender determinants of three types of leadership in academic science and engineering” by Marla Parker and Eric W. Welch in The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 24, pages 332-348, 2013, DOI:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.01.001

“Participation in university-base research centers: Is it helping or hurting researchers?” by Meghna Sabharwal and Qian Hu in Research Policy, Volume 42, pages 1301-1311, 2013, DOI:10.1016/j.respol.2013.03.005