For all the research that goes on at the University, it’s rare that a new scientific discovery hits the front page of national newspapers. Although the attention can boost the prestige of an institution, University officials say it takes much more than that to develop research that makes headlines.
In the fall of 2007, University researchers led by Chemical engineering Prof. Nicholas Kotov developed Plasteel – a transparent, lightweight plastic-like material with a toughness that experts say is ideal for military armor. The discovery made Wired magazine’s “Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2007.”
Ellen Arruda, professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the team that developed the material, said the project’s inclusion in Wired will increase the University’s prominence in the field of nanotechnology.
In the long run, though, the accolade probably won’t affect the University’s research funding, she said.
Media coverage often has more of an impact on the end result of research than on its initial funding, said Ken Nisbet, executive director of the University’s Office of Technology Transfer, which helps University researchers market their ideas to investors.
“When Professor Kotov won his original grant, it had nothing to do with any Top 10 list,” he said. “It’s more the capabilities of researchers and research labs at the University that wins these research grants.”
Nisbet said media coverage becomes more important once research produces a new technology to advertise.
“The media is very important to publicize the opportunities, resources, new discoveries and the people who are here to work with them,” Nisbet said. “It’s not always easy to connect with people in the marketplace and we’re trying to use all sorts of methods to get out to people.”
University researchers routinely compete with researchers from other colleges for funding, particularly from the federal government. Nesbit said the amount of funding a research university is granted largely depends on how well their research is received by investors within the scientific community – not the mainstream media.
About $679.9 million of the approximately $800 million invested in research last year was covered by grants.
Most of the University’s funding comes from government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Office of Naval Research. There is also gap funding, where the University funds part of a project to make it more marketable to outside companies, tailoring it to a company’s needs.
Because gap funding is much harder to find, the University usually ends up covering the cost. Only a small percentage of funding comes from outside companies, Nisbet said.
As one of the leading research institutions in the world, the University is routinely among the top rankings in various fields of research.
But the University’s prestige often puts increased pressure on researchers.
“U of M has a very strong reputation for inventions and discoveries,” Kotov said. “Straight away, there was a lot of pressure on me and the team to come up with a very essential, very important scientific finding.”
But Marvin Parnes, associate vice president of research at the University, said investors understand researchers can’t always churn out front-page discoveries.He said research that provides an improvement on an existing idea can be considered groundbreaking, too.
Breakthroughs are often the end stage of a long and tedious process, he said, pointing out that the research that led to one of the University’s most successful inventions – a nasally administered flu vaccine – took 40 years.
Both Parnes and Kotov said there was an understanding between scientists and administrators that nothing is definite when starting a new research project.
“Often, the federal agencies recognize that science isn’t linear, that you may find something you didn’t expect,” Parnes said.
What may be groundbreaking to scientists in a specific field may never reach the mainstream media. Parnes said the University isn’t dependent on mainstream publicity because it’s well established as a research institution.
Still, Parnes said, “it’s always nice to get good publicity.”