Vice President Birx Focuses on New Vision for Research

February 22, 2007

Donald BirxSix months ago, Donald L. Birx was named University of Houston System vice chancellor for research and UH vice president for research. In his career, Birx has held numerous positions in the private sector and in higher education. Prior to joining UH, he served as interim vice provost/president for research and professor of physics at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M.

Birx discussed his views on research and the possibility of UH becoming a Tier I institution with UH Today.

Q   Please define your clusters approach.

A   These are cross-disciplinary campus/college representations of research that are tied to fundamental core capabilities; regional strengths; and community, state and national needs. They are faculty-driven, multi-level frameworks (super-clusters, clusters and mini-clusters) that pull together faculty and staff across disciplines in a supportive environment for pursuit of larger multi-principal investigators’ endeavors. At the top level, they are summed into the five to six areas (such as energy and natural resources, materials, biomed, arts and human enrichment, community advancement and complex systems, etc . . . ) of research strength for representation to the community and funding agencies.

Clusters provide an interface and critical mass for partnering (pulling together individual faculty, research, groups and centers in a way that links well with businesses and funding agencies); they sustain a common infrastructure (core facilities) for successful pursuits at the national level. They also link the strengths of a multi-campus system. They are an inclusive foundation for collective scholarly activity, foster sharing of ideas and are a key element of a research enterprise that synergistically promotes a system-wide perspective that highlights our unique strengths.

Q   How does your clusters approach translate to interdisciplinary research?

A   It has been said that most of the issues that society faces in the 21st century revolve around interdisciplinary challenges. That’s the forefront of research, where the greatest progress, best funding opportunities and the most transformative discoveries will occur.

Q   What has been the campus community’s response to this idea?

A   The response has been generally positive, as we have tried to communicate that the cluster approach is faculty and student centric and faculty, student and community driven. So far, the emphasis has been on defining what we are about from a research perspective and fostering an environment of support for those who are of like mind. Eventually, however, clusters of faculty, students and community members will assist in framing strategic research directions and making investment recommendations on core facilities. The challenge in the coming months will be to work together to develop approaches to cluster organization that are inclusive, expansive and facilitative—that are viewed constructively even if you want to do your own thing.

Q   What are your thoughts on UH striving for Tier I status?

A   Clearly many of the elements for Tier 1 status already exist here, but it is putting the pieces together synergistically, building the supporting research architecture and obtaining parity in funding from the state with other Texas Tier 1 universities that will accelerate the transformation. Texas is a great state, and Houston is its biggest city. It would seem the time for Texas to have more than two Tier I universities and the University of Houston and Texas Tech are the next strongest candidates. It is an achievable goal. The challenge is to create the environment and find the resources to make it a reality.

  Can you elaborate on some of the particular cross-disciplinary research areas you see as being
       strong at UH?

A   Biomedical research is very strong here. We have great partnerships with the Texas Medical Center institutions through the Gulf Coast Consortium, the Alliance for Nano-Health and the Institute for Biological Imaging Science. It is an area that is highly interdisciplinary and draws on many of the university’s strengths in materials and engineering through neuroscience, chemistry and biology. Energy, as well as its environmental impact, is another cross-disciplinary area of research excellence within the UH System that involves communities of researchers across UH and the Houston area, and which is absolutely pivotal to this nation’s future standard of living.

Beyond that, UH has strengths in the arts, human enrichment, library, education, law, business, social interaction and economics. Our growing understanding of the interplay with physical and mathematical systems models, environmental design, visual studies and quantitative analysis is an important and evolving area of study with implications to our way of life and our ability to live together successfully in a safe and secure global economy. Finally, and this has been by no means an exhaustive listing, aerospace, advanced materials and the life sciences are melding in a resurgence of interest in manned flight to the moon, Mars and beyond. This is the region of the country where it will all come together. Increasingly, the community and UH are involved partners, and the role of the university in bridging research to applications is foundational. That is one of the reasons we are developing research clusters and why we are launching the Center for Industrial Partnerships.

Q   What is the Center for Industrial Partnership?

A   This is an organization whose entire purpose is to facilitate research across the campuses with off-campus researchers and industry. It is a recasting of the, after the fact, intellectual property process at UH into a joint research enterprise with commercial industry. It will link education and research at the undergraduate and graduate levels more closely with industrial sponsorship and involvement. It will assist in translating basic research to applications, while it is still evolving in the laboratory. This approach is aligned with national trends at leading universities and will begin to position the UH System at the forefront of collaborative research in a key metropolitan environment. In the past, we licensed our research but often didn’t know the full value or market relevance of the technology. The center will build value because the technology will be incubated and developed in concert with market-driven companies. The center also will provide a more certain path from discovery to application.

This will strengthen our competitiveness in basic research as well. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are stressing the types of partnerships this center will facilitate to speed the translation of research into commercial applications, while training the workforce of tomorrow.

Francine Parker