There are a bunch of federally-funded programs that are designed to support students and faculty who are at teaching-focused institutions. Let’s talk about it by busting out a new taxonomic term that we’ll probably be seeing more of in the future. Basically any university that doesn’t have R1-ish level of annual research spending is called an “Emerging Research Institution (ERI)” according to the CHIPS and Science Act.)
With this new bunch of cash, NSF and other federal agencies are charged with making sure that “ERIs” are getting our share of the research pie. Which makes sense from an effectiveness standpoint because a lot of these institutions that don’t traditionally rake in huge amounts of federal dollars are very good at what they do, and it can be highly effective to spend more funds to leverage our expertise. And reaching students at these institutions is essential for actually moving the needle on broadening participation. There’s a good argument to be made that the failure to identify the importance of Regional Public Universities can explain why the graduate training programs and professoriates of PWIs remain so darn W.
As funding agencies are looking to ramp up programs that are funding the broad array of ERIs out there across the higher education landscape, I have one huge request:
Could you develop these programs so they are designed to leverage our strengths instead of attempting to rectify what the conditions that research community tends to regard as our weaknesses? Could we have strengths-based funding for our institutions instead of deficit-based programs?
What do I mean by this? Let me provide a couple examples of deficit-based programs and how we can flip these to build on strengths instead of hitting us at our weakest points.
There are many federal agencies that support “research internships” for faculty from teaching-focused institutions, which pay the cost for the professor at the PUI to spend the summer working out of another active research lab. In NSF, this is a “Research Opportunity Award,” often just referred to as an ROA. For those of us who aren’t funded and have the opportunity to spend the summer in the lab of a collaborator, this could be a sweet deal. But the whole design of the program is designed to patch up the weaknesses of the investigator at the PUI. The idea is that they’re getting training in how to do research. So this program is designed for those of us who aren’t ready to run our own labs at the moment and are ready to piggyback on someone else’s program. That’s rather deficit-based, and also doesn’t meet the needs of most PIs who are running research programs at ERIs. There is a broad host of programs like these run by other agencies, which are more like summer camps or REU programs but for professors. I’ve generally got an issue with the thinking behind their design and have already gone off on this in these pages, but that was a while ago.
Here’s my beef about the ROA: It’s designed with the idea that the big research institutions are the ones that are prepared to teach us at non-R1s about how to do research and to build capacity for our own institutions. But has it occurred to y’all that those of us in these institutions are well positioned to teach folks who are at R1s? And maybe there are more professors at those institutions who should be coming to our campuses to learn from us? We are experts in mentorship, in community-engaged research, partnering with local industries, of course and our institutions are built around supporting the professional development of students with minoritized identities as well as those who are first-gen, low-income, and post-traditional. Not to mention that there are tons of us who are The Experts in our fields and there are scholars from other universities who can learn about us about doing cutting-edge science. As big research institutions are doing the work to recruit students with minoritized identities, they are recruiting faculty who are underprepared to serve these students and really need some immersive lessons in culturally-informed mentorship. The place to get that is from institutions that have been serving these populations of students for decades. It’s long overdue for exchanges of faculty to go both ways.
How about in addition to the ROA, we start seeing some REA awards: Research Engagement Awards. This would support PIs from research-intensive and primarily white institutions to travel to ERIs to learn from experts at our institutions? I imagine instead of a summer award, it would make sense to do this as a semester-long sabbatical. Or perhaps a 2-week immersive project of some sort during the academic year. Anyhow, what do you think? Feel free to give me a ring and I’d be glad to be involved with the development of this. But even if you don’t, feel free go ahead and use the REA name. You don’t even have to credit me. It’s catchy, innit?
Here’s another beef I have: REU programs are also built on the deficit model. They’re build to provide undergraduates with exposure to a research-rich environment that many of them would not be getting back at their home institutions. That’s a good thing. But because the design of the program is build on the deficit model, many features of this are exploitative and prone to failure. Many REU students might have a good summer but the institutional commitment to follow through on mentorship beyond that summer is usually very limited. And a lot of REU students are leaving supportive environments that are designed for their success and find themselves in PWIs that are often hostile. Moreover, REU programs are designed to extract the “high quality” students out of teaching-focused institutions which is a rather gross state of affairs, and this does nothing to build the research capacity at the campus that is supporting this student for the other 9 months of the year.
What are some strengths-based approaches to running summer research programs for undergraduates from teaching-focused institutions? Oh, where to begin! I’ve got so many ideas and have been talking with folks about this for the past decade. (Did you know this site is now more than 10 years old?! And I’m still at it?) I think what’s most important about redesigning summer research programs is that they are built so that there is a genuine partnership between the PIs at the research site and the institutions where these students are coming from. Nearly all REU students ended up applying to these programs based on the support of people from their home campus who are showing them the way. How about aside from showing us some love and appreciation, that we get some resources to support this student once they get back to their home institutions? A lot of these students on REUs are coming from active research labs at their PUIs. Imagine if we designed these summer opportunities as collaborations between PIs at these two different types of institutions? Where the research programs are actual collaborations?
That’ll do for now, I hope to post a Part II later on with more ideas about how our funding sources can evolve beyond the deficit-based mindset and find creative ways to leverage all the talent and experience we offer to improve the research community as a whole.