Research Highlights / Full Story

Creating a Research Environment

In 2002, RIT honored the first members of the Million Dollar PI Club: nine individuals who had received sponsored research awards totaling $1 million or more. Ten years later, there are 72 research millionaires. A university-wide focus on sponsored research is producing measurable results. More evidence: In 1998, just 102 research proposals were submitted to funding organizations. Last year, 653 proposals were submitted—an increase of 540 percent.

Research activities flourish in all nine colleges as well as interdisciplinary research centers, and the university is increasingly involved in high-level funding programs and competitive grant initiatives. RIT has received awards from agencies including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of Defense, and Department of Education, as well as numerous foundations and industry sponsors.

Last year, RIT received $52.5 million in new research awards, including $13.1 million toward construction of a facility for the Golisano Institute of Sustainability from the National Institute of Standards and Technology—the largest competitive federal award in RIT's history. In addition, a recent $1.75 million grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund will help construct a facility designed to foster innovation, research, and entrepreneurship among deaf and hard-of-hearing students and their hearing peers.

"Sponsored research at RIT has grown at an incredible rate over the last decade," says Ryne Raffaelle, vice president for research. "We focused on areas of strength where we could differentiate ourselves from other universities, and we've done a remarkable job."

Early Days of Sponsored Research

One of RIT's pioneers in this arena is imaging scientist John Schott, the Fredrick and Anna B. Weidman Professor in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. When Schott joined the faculty 30 years ago, virtually no sponsored research was being conducted and the university had no formal procedures for obtaining and administering grants, and no staff to facilitate the process.

Schott, who wanted to do research as well as teach, established the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory and also spearheaded development of RIT's first doctoral degree program. The imaging science Ph.D. was launched in 1988.

"It's hard to get started" in sponsored research, Schott says. "The way you get successful is to write a lot of proposals, and go through a lot of rejection. It feels like getting kicked in the teeth. Faculty have big egos, and that's tough."

The Office of the Vice President for Research, an umbrella for university-wide research activities, was established in 2005 to support faculty and staff in their scholarship efforts. Recently, the university has created several seed funding programs and initiatives to assist faculty in increasing their research portfolio. These include the Principal Investigators Institute, which provides instruction and training on proposal writing, grant management, and research compliance. The annual Trustee Scholarship Award, created in 2005, and individual college awards established just this year, recognize faculty for outstanding scholarship, research, and creative work.

RIT's strategic plan for 2005—2015 embraces faculty research as a key component of scholarship. The goal was not to transform RIT into a research university, says former president Albert J. Simone. "The plan incorporated the idea that RIT would be a teaching university which did significant research—especially applied research."

As Provost Jeremy Haefner says, "The RIT faculty enthusiastically embrace the notion that they should bring their scholarship into their teaching and their teaching into their scholarship. RIT students thrive in an environment where they are exposed to the thrill of discovery, creation, and innovation. Everyone involved is enriched by these collaborations."

The launch of five new doctoral programs since 2002 (microsystems engineering, computing and information sciences, color science, sustainability, and astrophysical sciences and technology) has opened new avenues for exploration.

"RIT has created distinctive, interdisciplinary programs," says Raffaelle. "It sets us apart from other universities."

Partners in Progress

The growth in sponsored research has evolved out of RIT's long-standing tradition of partnering with industry and government. About 15 to 20 percent of RIT's annual research funding comes from industry. This ratio is more than three times as much as the university's peer institutions, reflecting RIT's close ties with industry.

RIT has launched several programs aimed at working with industry:

  • First in Class: Launched in 2000, the program was conceived to strengthen ties with companies, provide financial support for research, enhance the learning environment in the class- room, and afford opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students outside of the classroom, says Simone.
  • Corporate R&D: More recently, President Bill Destler established RIT's Corporate R&D program. It seeks to enhance technology transfer between academia and industry by allowing businesses to retain rights to intellectual property generated from company-defined research.

One current challenge faced by researchers is the economy. The avail- ability of research funding edged down slightly for the past two fiscal years, but Raffaelle remains optimistic.

"In today's economy, funding agencies have become much more applied, which plays to our strengths," he believes. "Our ability to compete is better than it's ever been."

RIT's first Ph.D. recipient, Robert Loce '85, '93 (BS photographic science, Ph.D. imaging science), concurs. "The money goes where there is a track record of useful, practical successes," says Loce, principal scientist and technical manager, Xerox Research Center. "The research funding growth at RIT speaks to the ability of the RIT community to deliver research of value and as promised."

One thing is certain: RIT researchers will never run out of ideas. Some come from the outside, from sponsors seeking solutions to problems. Others come from RIT scientists, as their work leads in new directions.

The world's a complicated place," says Schott. "We're trying to understand it. And in the process, we're teaching the next generation of researchers.