Early indicators, verdict on Mission to DC

A year ago, James Petersen, then interim vice provost for research, began a program called Mission to DC — Washington, D.C. that is. Today, Petersen — a quiet, innovative, forceful, no-nonsense administrator — is officially the vice provost for research.

The question is, what has Mission to DC accomplished and will it keep going?

The thrust of the project is to take teams of WSU research faculty to the nation’s capital and have them meet with program managers from federal research agencies, foundations and corporations in the D.C. area. While there, they also meet with representatives from Washington’s congressional delegation. The goals are to increase research funding, build interdisciplinary collaboration between colleges and researchers, and establish and strengthen WSU’s image as a research university.

Briefly put, it’s too early to provide a quantitative report on this effort. But, several indicators are pointing to potential success.

“We saw $117 million in sponsored program expenditures during fiscal year 2002-03, marking a 13 percent increase,” said Petersen. “That indicates that federal agencies, foundations and corporations highly value the research activities that we are conducting at the university. It also indicates that our peers felt that the quality of our programs is such that they should grow.”

No quick turnaround
The application and funding process for research usually takes one to two years before it really kicks into gear. Projects are discussed and run up the flag pole for preliminary approval, applications are written, then the proposals are reviewed by foundation panels.

“When universities, like WSU, submit (research) proposals to various funding agencies, those program directors, in turn, submit the proposals to panels of experts — scientists from industries and other universities — to review and rank them as to which ones are best and worthy to receive funding and move forward.”

If a project is approved and funded, the money generally does not start getting spent for another six months to a year. So, most of last year’s research proposals would not be reflected in current expenditures.

Another positive indicator reflecting the program’s viability, Petersen said, is that the (cumulative) value of proposals submitted last year was up 19 percent, while the number of proposals decreased.

“That is significant, because it shows that faculty are responding to the strategic plan for research,” Petersen said. “They are writing larger, collaborative proposals and anticipating that we will be successful.

“We are confident that these projects will result in research that will have a greater impact on society, the economy, and the institution.

During the past year, five WSU research groups, including 24 faculty and researchers, have made their way east. The topics they focused on include:

• genomics/proteomics/informatics (two groups)
• diabetes
• environmental science and engineering
• nanotechnology

“This is a universitywide, collaborative effort,” said Petersen. “Nearly every college and campus has already been represented, and that includes Extension.

“Each team has been asked to provide reports on their trip and to address what worked well and what could be improved. We also are inviting comments from agency program directors in Washington. From that information, our office is trying to determine how to best measure the impact of the Mission to DC program.

“At this point, anecdotal evidence has been positive. We are getting requests from new faculty people who have talked to past participants and have been convinced that it is a great investment of their time and efforts,” Petersen said. “As a result, they want to go on trips in the future. That indicates to me that it’s working.”

Another positive factor is the creation of new partnerships. As an example, Petersen pointed to Derek McLain, a professor in Animal Science, and Neil Ivory in Engineering.

“These two have offices located on opposite ends of campus and began developing plans for collaboration while on the trip. Now they are submitting joint proposals. This is just one of many similar stories we’ve received back from faculty.”

Why are you here?
Some people question why WSU is spending the money to send people to Washington, D.C. To that, Petersen has a quick answer.

“Last year, I called a program director at an agency in Washington, D.C., to make arrangements for a meeting. We exchanged several e-mails and he wrote, ‘I really can’t understand why you’re spending the money to come all the way back here.’ After another couple rounds of e-mail he said, ‘OK, I can meet with you on Tuesday morning, but that afternoon I have to go to the University of Maryland to talk about our programs.’

“That person is the epitome of why we are going back there,” said Petersen. “East Coast universities have easy access to these agencies to find out what is happening and what future trends will be. These trips help us to level the playing field, to keep in contact with directors and decision makers, to enhance or image as a research university, and to improve our chances of success.”

John Wyrick, assistant professor, School of Molecular Biosciences, and a recent Mission to DC participant agrees.

“It was a valuable opportunity to meet with representatives from four or five agencies. I found out what they are looking for in terms of grant applications and what types of programs they are interested in,” Wyrick said.

“I also got to know a number of faculty from related areas, and met with congressional staffers from George Nethercutt’s and Patty Murray’s office, which allowed us to enhance their image of the university and let them know what we’re doing.”

Susan Butkus, an extension nutrition specialist, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Puyallup Research and Extension Center, is already putting the trip to use.

“It’s important to meet with people (from Washington, D.C.) in person, so they can hear about our programs first hand,” Butkus said. “It gives them a much better handle on what we’re doing, rather than just reading about it in a proposal. And it helps them to see us as a serious player in that research area.

“Overall, the trip greatly enhanced the working relationship among the faculty that participated,” Butkus said. “In fact, several of us have been working on a joint proposal regarding diabetes.

“What surprised me is how enthusiastic the agency program directors were to talk about what their agencies did, what was happening within their agency, and how we could work with them most effectively. For example, they encouraged us to identify and suggest which review panels we felt would be appropriate for reviewing our proposals.”

Future trips
Plans are currently being made for future excursions. Depending upon current budget negotiations and adequate funding, the Office of Research is hoping to host another round of five excursions to D.C. during the next eight months. If financing is reduced, the number of trips will be pared back.

Meanwhile, planning is already under way. Associate deans of the various colleges are talking and putting together a list of top priority topics that they would like to see future trips concentrate on. A few of the possible candidates are neuroscience, bioterrorism/homeland security and cancer treatment and prevention.

The Office of Research is also working closely with the WSU Foundation to develop strategies for reaching out to corporations and state agencies.

Faculty interested in participating in future trips to D.C. are encouraged to contact their associate deans, the Office of Research, and past participants. A list of all past participants will be attached to the end of this article at WSU Today online, http://www.wsutoday.wsu.edu.

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