Strategic Partnerships, Seed Grant Programs, Interdisciplinary Collaborations Cited as Factors Behind Increase
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
Hefty awards to the University of Maryland from NASA and the Department of Defense headlined a 23% surge in funding for research and related activities, which rose to a record $834 million in fiscal year 2023 from the previous year’s high of $677 million.
No single factor fueled the sudden growth, said Gregory F. Ball, vice president for research at UMD; this was facilitated by the university’s long history of working with those and other major sponsors.
“We’ve been fostering those partnerships with key federal agencies, and working to create an ecosystem to ensure those relationships continue to expand,” Ball said. “That work paid off in a big way this year.”
The top-line numbers are primarily a measure of the energy and innovation of UMD’s faculty and staff researchers, whose work to uncover new knowledge and solve society’s grand challenges attracts external funding, Ball said.
All their effort is boosted by the university’s commitment to enacting its strategic plan, Fearlessly Forward: In Pursuit of Excellence and Impact for the Public Good, which weighs in heavily on supporting research to benefit humanity. One outgrowth of that ethic was the Grand Challenges Grants program, which is supporting scores of UMD faculty and staff research projects, including three signature initiatives that won $3 million Grand Challenges Institutional Grants designed to lead to new centers or institutes and attract major external funding.
“As they mature, the projects supported by Grand Challenges Grants will support continued growth in outside funding,” Ball said. “This is indicative of the continuing commitments by President (Darryll J.) Pines, Provost (Jennifer King) Rice and their teams for outstanding and impactful research at this university.”
Among the notable funding announcements from this past fiscal year:
A five-year, $95 million cooperative agreement with NASA will expand the partnership between the space agency and UMD’s Earth System Science Center on research about global sustainability.
A five-year, $78.2 million cooperative agreement with the Army Research Laboratory will focus on advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning in a project with the A. James Clark School of Engineering to integrate data science with engineering in the Data Driven Engineering Research (DataDrivER) program.
A $20 million award from the National Science Foundation established the Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) to help develop artificial intelligence technology that empowers users while working to prevent biased AI outcomes and safeguard privacy.
A $2.2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will link environmental justice efforts across five states to address the effects of environmental racism and climate change in the mid-Atlantic region.
A $2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation will establish UMD as the hub for the emerging field of quantum thermodynamics, which studies how energy flows in quantum systems and could be a key driver for a range of future power, transportation and other technologies.
A $1.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support integrated research at the intersection of digital humanities and African American Studies.
Several of the major grants relate to UMD’s long-term research leadership in areas that have recently seen sharp rises in prominence throughout society, said Eric Chapman, associate vice president for research development.
“We were well-positioned for the growth in quantum and AI before both became cool,” he said. “The growth really is a reflection of years of sustained investment in the faculty, research enterprise—including instrumentation, seed grants, support for big proposals—and key partners and initiatives starting to pop.”
Increasing Department of Defense spending to work with UMD’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS) was another factor in the growth, Chapman said.
Ball said the major increase is occurring in the context of the Biden administration’s deep support for technology infrastructure to strengthen national security and solve climate woes. He cited the recent funding for UMD through the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act to build the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry, and strong Department of Energy funding for energy storage research and commercialization led by Distinguished University Professor of Engineering Eric Wachsman, director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute.
But amid the favorable environment, this week’s threat of a government shutdown is a reminder that such programs are vulnerable to politics.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Ball said. “It’s important we continue working toward our strategic goals in order to maintain this momentum.”
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