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How Far Has UNLV Research Come?

UNLV research efforts have consistently grown over its 60-year life span, setting us on track to someday becoming one of the premier research universities in the nation.

Research  |  Sep 12, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
researcher in lab

Kwang Kim, the NV Energy Professor of Energy and Matter, is among the UNLV professors bringing in highly competitive, multimillion-dollar grants from federal agencies and private partners like the National Science Foundation, Tesla Motors, NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense and more. 

Editor's Note: 

This piece, contributed by professor emeritus Stan Smith, is a sneak preview of the 2017 issue of Innovation, UNLV's research magazine, and part the "Our Future" series celebrating UNLV's 60th anniversary.

Anniversaries call to mind destinations we’ve reached, and this fall, UNLV celebrates reaching its 60th year. While we can be proud of all the milestones and successes we’ve achieved together over six decades, I’d also like to look more closely at the journey that’s brought us here, as it lights the way toward the next great destination we seek before our 70th.

We are on an excellent trajectory toward joining the ranks of the nation’s top research universities—what you’ll often hear those of us at UNLV refer to as the Top Tier. I believe we’ve actually been on the path to becoming this type of research university all along, even if we didn’t have this goal in mind from the start.

One of the most defining characteristics of a top research university is the amount of research funding it generates from external sources each year. In general, top research institutions garner at least $100-120 million in research funding annually.

At about $60 million this year, UNLV admittedly will need to approximately double its funding to become one of the nation’s top research universities. But considering UNLV received between $10-15 million in research funding in the 1990s, we’ve already come a long way.

Research funding was even lower than that when I arrived in 1985. At that time, the biology department had two research “stars” who went on to become distinguished professors: animal physiologist Mohamed Yousef, who studied animals’ reaction to heat and water stress, including how heat and dehydration could impact Air Force pilots; and biologist/activist Jim Deacon, who was responsible for the Devils Hole pupfish making its way onto the endangered species list. Most of the remaining biology faculty didn’t conduct funded research. But by the time I was hired, every person we hired was expected to be an active researcher with grant support.

We also didn’t have dedicated research labs back then, conducting research in our teaching labs instead. This meant that there were times during the school year when I couldn’t keep my research equipment on the lab benches because my students were using the space to work on their assignments and experiments. However, once dedicated research labs that could house equipment and sustain continuous experiments were carved out across campus, UNLV’s research productivity really took off. This is how we got from $15 million in research funding in the mid-1990s to around $60 million between 2005 and 2010—a quadrupling in only 15 years.

Then the recession hit. UNLV’s funding dropped to $40 million by 2012. However, what is often forgotten about this time period is that about 40 percent of UNLV’s research funding came from direct congressional appropriations (i.e., earmarks) then; our downturn was directly tied to the elimination of those earmarks in 2012.

Despite this, UNLV actually saw a steady increase in competitive grant funding through the recession years—versus noncompetitive funding such as the aforementioned earmarks, generally delegated without rigorous peer review. In university-ranking circles, competitive grant funding is the primary signifier of excellence. And now that we’re post-recession, these kinds of annual increases are becoming more pronounced at UNLV.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which enhances research capabilities in underfunded states, was a key catalyst in my research career. Large, multiyear grants like this provide important infrastructure in key research focus areas, with the goal of helping interdisciplinary teams sustain the original investment through competitive grants beyond the initial support. After an initial $2 million Department of Energy (DOE) EPSCoR grant that built a free-air CO2 enrichment site at the Nevada Test Site, we were able to acquire another $10 million in competitive grants from the DOE and National Science Foundation over the next decade to continue the long-term experiment.

Obviously, UNLV needs to continue to leverage EPSCoR and similar programs, and our new School of Medicine will increase our research portfolio eventually, but I believe the real key to becoming a premier research university by 70 is to continue a hybrid approach of spearheading faculty-driven initiatives from our departments and executing on a campuswide, strategic plan in which we identify key focus areas and make targeted, midcareer hires in those areas. Hires like Malcolm Nicol, whom UNLV recruited from UCLA to form the High Pressure Science and Engineering Center (HiPSEC) — an interdisciplinary lab that studies nuclear testing, stockpiles, and their alternatives—resulted in what is now one of the most productive and well-funded centers on campus.

We also need more research space. The Science and Engineering Building dramatically increased UNLV’s collective ability to do cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research; at least one more building like this is essential to keep us on the up and up.

Where there is a will and a good hybrid strategy, there is a way. And if how far we’ve already come in our journey is any indicator, UNLV is speeding its way to the top.

Stan Smith has served UNLV for 32 years and counting — first as a research-active faculty member in the School of Life Sciences, then as associate vice president for research for 10 years, and next as the acting dean of the College of Sciences before becoming professor emeritus this summer.

To celebrate the many research, scholarly, and creative activities taking place on our campus, join us at UNLV's third annual Research Week Oct. 9-13, 2017.