U. of Michigan's Microgrants Encourage Researchers to Explore Innovative Ideas

Laura Rudich, U-M College of Engineering

The grant program, dubbed MCubed, was suggested by three leaders in the College of Engineering. They are (from left) Mark A. Burns, chairman of the department of chemical engineering; Thomas H. Zurbuchen, the college's associate dean for entrepreneurial programs; and Alec D. Gallimore, its associate dean for research and graduate education.
May 09, 2012

The University of Michigan, in a bid to expand and broaden its base of scientific research, is offering faculty members a new microgrant plan that would directly finance the exploratory phase of an idea.

Under the plan, which begins today, all Michigan faculty will be eligible for a $20,000 credit that can be redeemed only if they work with two other faculty members, including one outside their academic field.

The idea, which appears to be unique among American research universities, has numerous elements that Michigan leaders believe will be attractive to professors and the institution, including its emphases on encouraging interdisciplinary work and helping faculty compete for a tightening pool of federal money.

And, said Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan's president, it will help Michigan and perhaps other universities overcome their widespread failure to let faculty pursue high-risk, high-reward hunches.

"I know that people have new ideas, good ideas, they'd love to try it out," Ms. Coleman said in an interview. "But we don't have good mechanisms now within the university for them to do that."

Those encouraging the idea include Richard K. Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Massachusetts, who said he hopes it will lead more universities to promote interdisciplinary collaborations. "I don't know of anything done on the scale that Mary Sue is proposing at Michigan," he said.

Mr. Miller said he tried a similar approach in the 1990s when he served as dean of engineering at the University of Iowa. In that case, he said, he required teams of only two faculty members and had limited results, especially given his hopes of attracting participation by some of the institution's most prominent researchers.

"Even $50,000, at that point, was not a big enough carrot for the people whom I really wanted to work together," he said. The stars, Mr. Miller said, "are so well funded that it's hard to get their attention even with $1-million." But there are others, in fields like sociology, history, art, and poetry, "for which $20,000 would make the world a different place," he said.

Quicker Starts on New Ideas

The University of Michigan is offering the grant program, dubbed MCubed, as the first major project in its Third Century Initiative, a program announced last October to mark its 200th birthday in 2017 by spending $50-million over the next five years on ways to attack global problems like poverty, climate change, and social injustice.

MCubed is intended as an alternative for researchers who might otherwise lack the resources to develop an idea to the point where they could seek a major grant from a public or private source like the National Institutes of Health or a major foundation.

It was suggested by a trio of leaders in the College of Engineering who felt that the standard sources of start-up money for researchers are too limited both in their willingness to entertain unusual theories and too slow in their months-long approval processes.

One of the plan's promoters, Mark A. Burns, a professor of chemical engineering and chairman of that department, said the idea was borne out of frustration with the realization "that the problems that I'm trying to solve aren't necessarily the problems that I think are the best problems to solve for society."

As an example, Mr. Burns said, an AIDS researcher might have an idea for a new HIV test and would use the money to hire a graduate student to conduct preliminary experiments on a store of blood samples. Getting a few thousand dollars for that kind of work could take a year of grant applications. Now, a group of three faculty members could discuss it over lunch and have $60,000 to begin the work the next day, he said.

The University of Michigan has 2,983 tenured and tenure-track faculty at its Ann Arbor campus. It anticipates MCubed, with a budget of $15-million over two years, will finance 250 projects involving 750 faculty.

The university had no estimate of how much money faculty members currently spend on exploratory-phase research using money from various public, private, and internal sources. But money set aside by the university for the Third Century Initiative will provide only $5-million of the $15-million budget, with the remainder consisting of matches from departmental and faculty accounts.

Ms. Coleman said she expects many failed projects, and will consider the overall idea a success if Michigan gets "10 or 20 faculty who really started something totally new and different and exciting." Ms. Coleman, a biochemist who studied the immune system and malignancies earlier in her career, said her generation was relatively lucky to be working at a time when the NIH had sufficient budgetary resources and dedicated programs to support younger researchers.

Still, she said, "There were a lot of areas that I just couldn't explore because I didn't have specific grant funding to deviate from what I was supposed to be doing."

Scientists at universities across the country do struggle with a lack of flexibility in federal financing of their research, said Howard H. Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Mr. Garrison said he wasn't familiar with the details of MCubed but said a key benefit appeared to be the emphasis on financing individuals rather than projects. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute takes a similar approach, he said, but it's otherwise a rare strategy in university-based research.

"There's been certainly a fair amount of interest in that as a complement to the project-based systems," Mr. Garrison said. "A lot of people think that there are certainly more ways to simulate creativity than we're currently using."