Jack Hu, vice president for research at the University of Michigan, said last January his goals for his tenure as head of one of the nation’s best research facilities included improvement in undergraduate research opportunities, supporting faculty research initiatives and broadening multidisciplinary collaboration of projects across the University.
In a one-year follow-up interview on Feb. 9, Hu reinforced the role the University’s Office of Research plays in launching new initiatives and making progress in future prospects — particularly amid a changing social, technological and political climate.
Hu highlighted in particular the goals of the office in terms of innovation and collaborative efforts with international industry partners.
Partnerships completed throughout the first year of Hu’s tenure include those with Frontt Capital Management Ltd., a Chinese investment firm, for work on new driverless vehicle technology, and with the Beijing Institute of Collaborative Innovation.
The BICI, Peking University and the University developed the concept of this global collaboratory and drove its agenda for global challenge-centered goals. Though other universities are also able to get involved, these three central participants have already applied this model to establish a global collaboratory in advanced manufacturing.
The University has been on the forefront of driverless technology nationally and internationally with the creation of Mcity, the simulated urban-suburban driving environment located on North Campus that prototypes and tests automated vehicles.
Carrie Morton, deputy director of the Mobility Transformation Center — established in 2013 as a partnership program within academia that expands to include industry and government — said Mcity is the MTC’s largest contribution to the University’s research interests. Morton highlighted its significance in terms of drawing partners and government involvement, especially through the Department of Transportation both statewide and nationwide.
“We have been able to grow our research portfolio well beyond the technology and we’re starting to get a better understanding of how humans interface with these technologies, which is really important when we try to understand consumer acceptance,” Morton said.
Morton outlined much of the progress that has been made with regard to intelligence infrastructure, including a new traffic control center, the launching of TechLab — an initiative with the Center for Entrepreneurship where early-stage companies are launched at the MTC — and having open connected and automated vehicles. This fleet of two vehicles, professionally established as drive-by-wire vehicles, hold the goal of creating a platform allowing MTC researchers to speed innovation and reduce the normal barriers of working on these technologies.
“We really have a wonderful glide path to be able to deploy what we learn in the real world very quickly,” Morton said.
Hu also initiated a student Scholars Program through MCubed — which stimulates innovative research and scholarship through distributing real-time seed funding to multidisciplinary, faculty-headed research teams for undergraduates. $4000 is allocated for each accepted undergraduate participant for summer work. The graduate level program is similar but allocates $8,000 per student to those involved.
“I’m very supportive of undergraduate research,” Hu said. “Everywhere I travel, people talk about their research experience, how undergraduate research really enabled them to be independent thinkers, define problems, solve problems, drawing a conclusion or writing a report.”
Another program of Hu’s is the Exercise and Sport Science Initiative, which aims to optimize health and athletic performance, co-directed by Kinesiology Prof. Ron Zernicke. The initiative involves collaboration from the fields of data science and analytics, new sport technologies — including design and prototyping — and performance optimization.
Zernicke, who focuses on optimal performance, was appointed to co-direct the initiative with biomedical engineering Prof. Ellen Arruda last September. Zernicke said he has found Hu to be supportive of cross- and interdisciplinary research branching multiple sectors of the University in many ways.
Though a new program, the ESSI has conducted research that could hold implications not only for athletes, but also for the medical field, particularly through recording technology useful for critical care units in terms of monitoring individuals’ life sciences measurements, care input and nutrition.
Zernicke cited the ESSI as a way to solve social problems, establish a business venture and hold corporate partnerships, all within the multidisciplinary expertise of the University.
“One of the intriguing things is that Michigan has the health system here — including the sports medicine — it has the athletics, and it has all of these other multiple schools and colleges,” Zernicke said. “What I was most impressed with Jack was that he basically saw this as a way of really integrating the breadth and depth of Michigan to look at significant societal needs and maintaining health and wellness.”
In terms of the role the office plays in University President Mark Schlissel’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan — a five-year plan aiming to create a more inclusive campus environment and promote a more diverse climate — Hu said he fully supports the University’s efforts.
“We support the president’s plan and I also truly believe diversity is very conducive to innovation,” Hu said. “From a company perspective, I understand exactly why there is interest in this, because for any company that provides services or products, their customers are diverse, so you must understand their needs and preferences. You want your product team and marketing team and everyone to understand what your customers want … a diverse team is very good for innovation. Because we are a research organization, I believe in that as well.”
Through service and research units, the Office of Research’s specific DEI plan aims to strengthen and expand the office’s educational offerings that promote the goals of the DEI, increase the diversity of its staff through targeted recruitment strategies and improve external outreach to corporate partners, governmental agencies and foundations.
One challenge Hu said he has faced includes involving differing sciences in University research.
“We have been trying to promote the participation of the faculty and schools in the social sciences,” Hu said, specifying this particularly applies to Mcity.
Hu highlighted understanding consumer behavior and acceptance to autonomous cars, legal and ethical issues with autonomous driving and a need for increased business models in response to autonomous vehicles are all facets of social sciences that can contribute to the studies of technology’s impact on transportation and employment opportunities.
“If a lot of things are automated in manufacturing, service and transportation, then we don’t need that many drivers, we don’t need that many workers, so what do people do? This is a critical discussion I think the country as a whole needs to have.”
LSA senior Adedolapo Adeniji, an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program social sciences peer advisor, said she has been involved with UROP since her freshman year.
“I’ve found myself utilizing a lot of the skills that I learn through research in class,” Adeniji said. “I think people undervalue the role research can play in your everyday college life.”
Adeniji said the issue is not the University’s lack of focus on social science research, but rather, a negative stigma attached to research that is not based on data science and mathematics.
“I think there’s a common misconception that research is a hard science,” Adeniji said. “That research is math. That research is only for people who are pre-med, or that research is chemistry or physics … and that’s a misconception I had when I came into college when UROP was introduced to me.”
Both Morton and Zernicke expressed interest in further collaboration with the social sciences as well.
“There’s such a strain on the talent pipeline right now,” Morton said. “The heart of what we’re doing that is so unique is providing this real-world data about how these technologies are used and how they’re deployed, and so getting further engagement with the social sciences will be really important for us in the next year to continue to get a glimpse into the future.”
One initiative that Morton said has improved the multidisciplinary dialogue between Mcity and law students was the University Law School’s creation of two new courses focused on studying multifaceted issues within the MTC.
Additionally, since its introduction last year, the ESSI now has 12 units of the University involved, including the Institute for Social Research, the School of Nursing and LSA. Zernicke also cited partnerships with MHealthy, the Taubman college and the community action and social change minor.
“It’s taken quite a range of faculty and students,” Zernicke said. “It’s really bringing a lot of the different areas of expertise together and is fundamentally looking at health and wellness across the lifespan.”
Research expenditures at the University were $1.39 billion in fiscal year 2016, according to the Annual Report on Research Financial Summary, the majority of which falls in the College of Engineering, the Medical School and the Institute of Social Research units — something Hu also said may remain a challenge.
“There’s a lot of unknown,” Hu said. “The word I can use is uncertainty. The new administration has not really put together any policy statement on science and research.”
Hu expressed concern with research funding cuts in the Department of Energy under the new administration with regard to energy-efficiency, as well as in the Office of the Interior. Additionally, the Department of Defense, which funds all spectrums of research, could potentially receive cuts to sciences but would maintain more applied research. There is also a potential for the National Endowment for the Humanities to be cut or completely close down.
Hu noted federal support for research at all universities has decreased in the past three or four years.
“The goal is to diversify sources of research funding and continue to expand our partnerships with industry,” Hu said. “Mcity is a good example where industry provided a lot of support … I think we can do better with foundations who are supporting the humanities, arts, social sciences and of course, the physical sciences.”
Similarly, Morton said the MTC will continue to look for opportunities to leverage public funding amid a series of governmental changes.
“The market is definitely driving these changes,” Morton said. “The University’s role and MTC is to really provide that fact-based result so that we can help to inform policy based on research from real-world exposure to the technology and that’s so important that we can help inform not from opinion, but from high-quality research.”