Seeding the solutions

I spoke to yet another beneficiary of the provost’s tier 1 interdisciplinary research seed grant program yesterday. Elizabeth Dillon’s work is a bit different from most of the people I talk to these days — she’s an English professor. But she’s doing incredible things combining the humanities and computation, mining historical texts for the prevalence of various words. This so-called “digital humanities” approach allows Dillon to uncover social trends and correlations throughout history. Along with David Lazer, Dillon will use the seed grant to establish an interactive digital archive of early Caribbean texts.

Today my story about speech language pathologist Rupal Patel and graphic designer Isabel Meirelles highlighted another tier 1 project, in which the team is developing a program to help foreign language learners “sound more native.” Last week a story about Swastik Kar and Yung Joon Jung’s work demonstrated how a tier 1 grant provided the proof of concept work required to secure an NSF grant.

The whole idea of the seed grants is to achieve exactly that goal: eventual external funding at a larger scale. When I worked in the start-up industry, the whole catch-22 issue was always at the forefront of our minds. In order to secure funds to do the things you want to do, you need to provide evidence that it’s worth an investor’s money. But in order to get that evidence, you need to do the work…which takes money. There are obviously ways of making it happen — if there weren’t, the world would look a lot different than it does today. But programs that speed up that process and make it a bit easier on the researchers, giving them more time to think about research rather than bureaucracy, are great.

Which is why I’m so excited that I keep coming across successful tier 1 stories. Patel, Meirelles, Kar and Jung were all recipients of 2012 grants whereas Dillon and Lazer’s project is one of 27 awards announced just a few weeks ago. Other awesome-sounding projects that I want to find out about have titles like “Engineering Oil Production from Microalgae as a Renewable & Sustainable Supply of Biofuels” and “Exploiting the Potent Antimicrobial Secretions of Termites for Therapeutic Use in Controlling Human Gastrointestinal Infections.”

The highly competitive seed grant program is sponsored by the office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education, which provides 60% of the financial support, and the colleges, which provide the other 40%. “So, the more interdisciplinary the work, the smaller the share per college,” said Karen Drew, Director of Research Development & Strategic Projects. Historically researchers have pursued funding individually, said Drew, from the vantage of a single discipline. “This encourages faculty to think big and to tackle complex problems whose solutions are inherently cross-disciplinary.”

While the political and economic climate have made it hard to secure national funding, the seed grants allow researchers to provide the proof of concept necessary to develop a robust proposal in an extremely competitive environment.

Tier 1 is only one of the internal research funding offered to Northeastern investigators to advance interdisciplinary research initiatives. These awards provide up to $50K. Tier 2 grants allow faculty to respond to external funding opportunities. Up to $75K can be used to prepare a proposal or submission or as the cost-sharing piece required by many grants. Tier 3 is dubbed “CRIP,” which stands for Campus-wide Research Initiatives Program. This one allows faculty to develop major new research initiatives, centers and institutes. It provides up to $150K.