Mason plans to boost research credentials through investment, undergrad involvement

As part of its strategic plan, Mason will try to attain a “very high research activity” ranking from the Carnegie Foundation, a research center that measures the research activity of hundreds of universities. The move is part of an attempt to increase Mason’s reputation as a high-class research institution.

To reach the goal, officials hope to invest heavily in research projects and to restructure academic programs to make research a more prominent component of Mason’s academic experience. Daniel Cox, an associate professor at the Krasnow Institute, puts a heavy emphasis on mentoring undergraduates in his lab.

“All graduate students are required to work with undergraduates,” Cox said. “They really need to develop strong mentoring skills. We work in a team-based environment. I match the undergraduate and graduate students based on their interests.”

Cox’s lab, which studies fruit flies to help determine the origin of neurological diseases, is representative of the kind of research environment that Mason wants to make universal across all academic programs. Over the next ten years, Mason will be actively working to boost its research credentials, focusing both on the amount of research being conducted as well as the quality of their results. To accomplish this goal, the university plans to restructure academic programs, invest millions in research projects, create new institutes and recruit top-class researchers.

Vision of research at Mason

In March of 2013, the Board of Visitors approved a new vision for the university, a two-page document that gave broad guidelines about the mission and commitments that Mason provided. As part of that document, the university highlighted several areas that would receive greater financial and institutional attention in the future.

One of those areas involved expanding the research opportunities available to students and investing in research that would have an impact economically and in the field of study.

“We will expand research as a central element of our mission; we will work to translate our discoveries into interventions and applications with social, cultural, and economic impact,” read the strategic vision document.

With the vision approved, university officials have shifted their attention to drafting the strategic plan, a more detailed document that set specific goals for Mason to achieve within the next ten years. One of those goals is to be ranked as a “very high research activity” institution by the Carnegie Foundation, an independent policy and research center.

Beginning in 1970, the foundation has been classifying higher education institutions on a number of characteristics, including enrollment, undergraduate instruction and research. The Carnegie Foundation takes several variables into consideration when rating universities on their level of research activity, including research and development expenditures in science and engineering fields, the amount of S&E research staff and number of doctoral conferrals

“It captures a lot of elements other than just research expenditures,” said Vikas Chandhoke, the vice president of research and economic development at Mason. Mason is currently rated as a “high research activity” institution, one ranking below the desired “very high research activity” classification. To make the change, the university will have to actively recruit top faculty, create a strategy for winning grants and restructure academic programs to put a heavier emphasis on research.

Differing levels of student engagement

To reach the “very high research activity” rank, Mason will need to find a way to incorporate research into more undergraduate academic programs.

“I believe very strongly that every student should be able to engage in research,” Chandhoke said. “This is something that will be a differentiating factor in their college years when they’re competing for jobs.”

According to a student engagement report conducted by the university in 2013, only 13 percent of seniors reported conducting research with faculty outside of coursework or program requirements. That number has gone relatively unchanged since 2006. The report made several conclusions that compared Mason with institutions that were already classified as having a very high research activity.

“Mason’s [senior] population consists of a large proportion of transfer and part-time students. These students tend to work and, compared to peers, are more likely to work off-campus and for longer hours,” read the report. “When compared to native and/or full-time counterparts, these students tend to have less student-faculty interaction and are less likely to participate in enriching educational experiences. These students represent a challenge for Mason as we continue to emphasize student success.”

Bethany Usher, director of Mason’s Students as Scholars initiative, contests that the study’s findings are an accurate representation of undergraduates’ views of research.

“[The survey] specifically asks for ‘out of class,’ and in our testing, many students who received credit for their project don’t see it as being outside of class – and especially if the research is built into a standard course,” Usher said in an email. “Also, it says research, so students who have put on a play, sung in an opera, presented an art project, created a business case analysis, or wrote a new video game may not associate that with ‘research,’ even though it is the scholarly work of their major.”

While Usher contests that more Mason students are engaged than the report says, there are still difficulties with getting less engaged students involved in research projects.

“In many ways, there are two very different types of students at Mason,” said Associate Director of Assessment Stephanie Hazel, referring to on-campus and off-campus students. According to Hazel, off-campus students are more likely to be older, hold part or full-time jobs, or have families, leaving less time available for academic involvement.

“This is one of the areas where we do want off-campus students to be equally engaged,” Usher said. Usher said that the university plans to look at digital tools to make research opportunities available to off-campus students and build stronger relationships with students who aren’t traditionally involved.

Creating a more inclusive research environment

To incorporate more undergraduate students in the research process, Mason hopes to incentivize incorporating undergraduate research in the classroom.

According to Cox, the administration needs to do more to incentivize undergraduate research.

“We want to do these things, but individualized instruction has to be built into the pay structure,” Cox said. Cox has taught 305 credits of individualized instruction over the last four years, none of which count towards his teaching requirements.

In 2012, the Students as Scholars Leadership Council developed a list of suggested changes that departments could make to better incorporate research into traditional undergraduate instruction.

“Our commitment to creating a culture of undergraduate student scholarship cannot be realized without our faculty,” read the document. “They are the drivers of this change. There are a myriad of ways that faculty can contribute to this goal, both large and small.”

One of these recommendations includes “finding strategies to allow faculty to count mentoring undergraduates as part of their teaching load,” incorporating undergraduate research into the decision-making process for promotion, and finding grants for travel expenses and encouraging partnerships. Most Mason officials involved in the discussion believe that there isn’t anything inherent about a subject that makes it more or less conducive to more open research involvement.

“I don’t think it’s more difficult in any department,” Usher said. “There’s a lot more of an understanding that students contribute. Some departments are shaped more by involvement in research, so they have a history of working with undergraduates.” Cox, who currently has eight undergraduate students working in his 21-person lab, thinks that building a collaborative environment in any field of study should be encouraged across all academic departments.

“I would urge the faculty to be more open minded to see what freshmen can come to bear,” Cox said. “It just makes for peer-based learning in a research lab, which is incredibly valuable.”

Closing the funding gap

While Mason is working to restructure its academic departments to create a more inclusive environment, researchers will also need to boost the amount of funding going into high-impact research projects. The median amount of investments in science and technology research for very high research institutions is $250 million, $177.5 million more than Mason’s current expenditure level.

“The slope from here to $250 million is pretty steep,” Chandhoke said at a Mason Board of Visitors meeting on Oct. 2. “The investments are going to be made from various sources.”

Mason plans to create five new research institutes to help achieve this goal. By the end of 2013, the university hopes to finalize the creation of institutes in game modeling and medical sciences, which build off of already existing programs at Mason.

“Universities with medical schools usually have high levels of research expenditures,” Chandhoke said. “This is something that we will have to address as we go forward.”

To increase the number of grants being awarded to projects at Mason, officials hope to build a number of collaborative partnerships with corporations, government entities and other foundations.

“There’s actually growth in the corporate areas with regards to research funding,” said Keith Bushey, the chief of staff for the Office of Research and Economic Development. “We are in the process of hiring development officers in those areas. Defense is a big one for us. In the past, we’ve strived to become an excellent academic institution. We’re now a selective college as opposed to a college of last resort. Hopefully there is a shift to us becoming a major research institute.”

Stuart Mendelsohn, a Board member sitting on the Research Committee, raised questions about the university’s efforts to receive enough funding from partnerships with both corporations and government entities.

“I just don’t necessarily know if this is going to come to fruition any more successfully than what we’ve been doing,” Mendelsohn said. Chandhoke replied that Mason hasn’t created a system for building the kind of partnerships needed to raise $177 million in additional research funding.

“We have done a dismal job of interacting with the corporate sector,” Chandhoke said. “It has to be more than just picking up the phone and saying I need $50,000. It has not been done systemically. All major universities engage with corporate research activity.”

While Mason’s commitment to reaching a “very high research activity” classification is a component of the university’s 10-year goals, the Board of Visitors has not officially adopted those goals as part of the overall strategic plan. The Board hopes to vote on a final draft of the plan by the end of 2013.