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A Bold Research Funding Experiment Pays Off

In a one-of-a-kind funding program designed to spark innovative research without traditional peer review, University of Michigan professors spun their MCubed seed money into millions more.

by University of Michigan
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Valerie Johnson, Executive Director of MCubed, speaks at the MCubed Symposium at the Rackham Graduate School on November 15, 2013. Over 200 projects (also known as "cubes") are presented at the first annual MCubed Symposium. The cubes are interdisciplinary projects that bring faculty and students together across the different schools (College of Engineering, LS&A, and so forth).Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & MarketingMCubed, which launched in 2012, is a grassroots effort to jumpstart daring, boundary-crossing work. At its annual conference today, organizers released data from the first look at the program's impact and announced that MCubed would renew for another two-year cycle.

"I want Michigan to be a place where faculty can do their best work, where they can fulfill their ambitions as scholars, researchers and teachers, where students can learn from the very best professors and be involved in their quest for new knowledge and understanding," said President Mark Schlissel. "The enterprise of research at a place like the University of Michigan must be innovative and forward-looking, and MCubed has blazed a new trail in this regard."

MCubed has led to new grants, studies, inventions and other scholarly work.

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  • The $14-million initiative brought in $20 million in additional grants from 31 projects, or 15 percent of the total so-called "cubes." Thirty-two other grant proposals are pending.
  • More than 60 groups have either submitted or published studies in peer-reviewed journals and many more are being written.
  • Forty-two cubes have achieved other scholarly products, such as conference presentations, interactive websites, digital archives and artistic performances.
  • Eleven teams filed invention disclosure reports.
  • The program has employed more than 880 graduate students, undergrads and postdocs who gained experience working on an interdisciplinary team.

In today's harsh research funding environment, MCubed organizers say the program has demonstrated a new way to break an old cycle that can stymie innovation. The traditional competitive grant review process involves long proposals followed by long waits and short lists of winners. Funding agencies decide which ideas move forward. Often the grants go to those who already have preliminary results or who have a history of working together. That can make it difficult for new collaborators to try untested approaches.

"It's a Catch-22," said Mark Burns, MCubed director and the T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering. "To get the grant, you need results and history, but how can you get results and history without the grant? With MCubed, we wanted to sidestep all that and trust the faculty to pursue the projects that they, rather than funding agencies, believe in."

MCubed organizers cite several examples of success. A chemical engineer, a biologist and an ecologist developed a specially etched glass slide called a microfluidic reactor to quickly find algae combinations that efficiently make biofuel. MCubed gave them enough data to show that the device could work. The team rolled it into a $2 million National Science Foundation proposal. It won, with high marks for the high-risk/high-reward nature of the microfluidic reactor concept.

"MCubed was instrumental in bringing us together to start a collaboration we had been discussing for some time. That made a difference—a huge difference. It showed NSF that we were already working together," said Nina Lin, assistant professor in chemical engineering and a member of the biofuel team.

A cancer biologist, an epidemiologist and a mathematician looked into links between HPV, which is the virus that causes cervical cancer, and head and neck cancers. It's a complex problem at the intersection of infectious disease and cancer, and the professors had never worked together before.

"You really need an interdisciplinary, out-of-the-box team to tackle this and try to understand how sexual behavior can lead to the transmission of HPV, and how that eventually shapes the trends we see in cancers that occur many years after the transmission. There are a lot of questions and we're trying to fill the gaps in understanding," said Rafael Meza, assistant professor of epidemiology. "MCubed gave us the momentum to take our small project even further."

Professors of theater, social work and art worked to build a broader creative class in Detroit. Creativity, the researchers say, creates a sense of optimism and opportunity in communities. They built a portable kiosk to carry exhibits and workshops around the city. With it, they held a Mexican paper art workshop at a bus stop. At a flea market, they'll showcase the work of local bakers in photos and samples.

"When we got the MCubed funding, we didn't even know what form our project would take," said Nick Tobier, associate professor of art. "But we were able to work those details out once we got started. You can't normally do things in that order."
The program gave $60,000 early-stage grants to more than 200 trios of professors. To get the money, qualifying faculty members only had to agree to work with collaborators outside their disciplines on a brand new project. No application was required. Participants had to contribute matching funds.

And while the review process wasn't traditional, the program used a form of peer review. Each qualifying professor received one token and had to choose which project to join. Three tokens made a "cube." In a separate, public MCubed Diamond Program, individuals, organizations and faculty members can fully fund cubes and find collaborators.

"One of the reasons MCubed has been successful is that it builds on the excellence across the full breadth of our 19 schools and colleges," said S. Jack Hu, interim vice president for research. "This is complemented by our culture of interdisciplinary cooperation and our commitment to translational research."

Funding for MCubed was provided by the Provost's Office, the individual schools, colleges and units, and investigators who participated in the program. MCubed, conceived of by a trio of engineering professors, is the first program of U-M's Third Century Initiative, a $50 million, five-year plan to develop innovative, multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship.

"MCubed has given our faculty a tremendous opportunity to connect across disciplines," said U-M Provost Martha Pollack. "As we move forward, professors, the university and society at large will reap benefits from the networks MCubed has made and will continue to make possible."