Research Corporation High risk + high reward = 40 Nobel Prizes

By Teya Vitu –

Nobel Prizes typically get doled out some 30 years after scientists make their revolutionary discoveries. No great suspense there.

Tucson’s Research Corporation for Science Advancement is at the very opposite end of the spectrum.

The foundation awards about $4 million in grants every year to scientists in the early phases of their careers or research – long before there is even the faintest glimmer of a Nobel Prize or any guaranteed success of any sort.

Yet Research Corporation has funded scientists who went on, decades later, to collect 40 Nobel Prizes – seven awarded in the 21st century.

Research Corp. funds hunches at the very boundaries of science.

“I don’t want to fund the science of today. I want to find the science of tomorrow,” said Jim Gentile, Research Corp’s president and CEO since 2005. “If you want to do that, it’s going to be really complex, really big and across all the disciplines. It’s going to take a community of scientists.”

Don’t look to Research Corp. to make a safe bet. The staff very comfortably drops phrases like “push the envelope” and “out of the box” as its preferred proposal for funding.

They gravitate toward ideas that have the rest of the philanthropic community scratching its collective head.

“We are really looking for ideas far enough outside the box that they wouldn’t get funding from anywhere else,” said Richard Wiener, a Research Corp. program officer. “We want people willing to take a big risk. We embrace the concept of failure.”

Research Corp. thrives on the notion of high risk, high reward – be that with the scientists’ proposals, the organization’s willingness, even eagerness, to fund outlandish ideas or, most bold of all, moving Research Corp.’s offices from New York City to Tucson in 1982. Its Southwest colored business park offices are at Swan Road and Camp Lowell Drive.

“Tucson was a good fit,” said John P. Schaefer, who became CEO of Research Corp. in 1982 after serving as president of the University of Arizona. “We award grants. You can do that any place if you have access to a phone and an occasional flight.”

Research Corp. was heading toward bankruptcy in New York City. As soon as Schaefer came on board, he looked around the country for the ideal place to relocate the organization. He settled on the city he had just left, citing UA’s strengths in technology, sciences and its library.

“We went from financial peril to a foundation that achieved enormous things,” Schaefer said.

Like the State of Arizona, Research Corp. celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012. The organization funded the earliest research in Robert Goddard’s rocketry (pre-dawn of space age), Ernest O. Lawrence’s cyclotron (a first step to the atomic bomb), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), radio astronomy and military radar.

Today, Research Corp. focuses much of its grants in the areas of solar, nature, nanotechnology and interdisciplinary research.

“We are seeing the emergence of new nanostructures that will increase efficiency,” Wiener said. “There is a crossover from the physical sciences to the biological sciences. Scientists are using biomimicry to help human design. We are gaining an understanding of how nature works and engineering nature in ways that are more efficient. The areas that are particularly hot in science are the interfacing of disciplines and the development of new materials, particularly on the nanoscale.”

Research Corp has the luxury of $131 million in net assets, nearly all of it an outgrowth from deposits made by a handful of scientists in the 1940s and 1950s to build the coffers of the organization that originally funded them. That was supplemented with patent income (until 1986) and shrewd investments over the decades. Investment income comfortably covers all costs these days.

“I think it’s a real tribute to our founder, Frederick Gardner Cottrell, who saw that promoting research for society as a whole was more valuable instead of using his invention to become incredibly rich,” Schaefer said.

Research Corp. has awarded the UA 152 grants – more than any other university in the nation.

Research Corp. funds scientists through three principal avenues in amounts ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 – Cottrell Scholar Awards, Cottrell College Science Awards and Scialog (a contraction for science and dialogue).

The $75,000 Cottrell Scholar Awards go to assistant professors at research universities to pursue key ideas that may not attract funding elsewhere. The funding typically supports stipends for students, supplies and equipment – what Wiener describes as “the meat and potatoes that make a research project viable.”

In 2010, 11 Cottrell Scholars were awarded. No individual grants were given in 2011, though three collaborative grants worth $25,000 each were awarded.

The Cottrell College Science Awards are near and dear to the science corporation because they go to faculty at undergraduate universities, often far off the radar – such as Hope College in Holland, Mich., where Gentile spent 30 years on the faculty and administration before coming to Tucson. Gentile himself received a $25,000 Research Corp. grant in the 1970s to buy an ultra centrifuge.

Often, these grants are the first funding seen by these faculty in the first three years of their tenure tracks. A Research Corp. grant is often the seed to attract more funding and build a research career.

Research Corp. gave out 46 College Science Awards in 2011 totaling $1.6 million. In 2010, $2 million were granted to 57 scientists at undergraduate colleges.

Research Corp. uses near-revolutionary criteria to select grant awardees. Research scientists often are notorious for heavily favoring the laboratory over the classroom. If you want a Research Corp. grant, you have to love the classroom as much as the lab.

“In two out of three cases, the integration of teaching and research is very high,” Gentile said. “We ask an applicant why is teaching important to her, how does she dovetail her research into the education experience of her students? We focus specifically on the ability to provide quality research experiences while simultaneously helping her bring research into the classroom. We look at the seriousness with which they take the integration of education and research.”

In a way, the scholar and college science are flip sides of the same coin. For the teaching-oriented undergraduate faculty, it helps build a research pedigree, and for the research university faculty, it is designed to bolster a scientist’s teaching pedigree.

Scialog takes the next step – forcing scientists to mingle and collaborate.

Scialog, which Gentile founded in 2009, is the opposite of the Cottrell Awards, where scientists apply for grants by submitting proposals. With Scialog, Research Corp. puts out a request for proposals revolving around solar-energy conversion to scientists.

There is a catch. Grant recipients have to come to Tucson, this past year to Biosphere 2, and take part in a Scialog – a scientific dialog. It’s a conference where the 60 awarded scientists engage in dialogue across the fields of science.

“We don’t just have a regular meeting,” Gentile said. “It’s a meeting that has the intention to build community and trust.”

To sweeten the pot, and see how well these scientists think on their feet, Research Corp. offers three $100,000 grants for new proposals that scientists dream up while at the Scialog conference. The key requirement: Scientists must team up with other Scialog attendees to shape these proposals.

Nine teams made five-minute presentation to vie for the three grants.
In 2011 these scientists received three multi-investigator awards for $250,000 each and four $100,000 individual grants.

Before Gentile, Research Corp. funded major projects like the Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham, along with individual scientists.

Gentile is more interested in the scientist, “We want to fund people,” Gentile said. “We ought to invest in the genius of individuals.”

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