Q & A with Christopher Hill, Vice Provost for Research

Posted: February 24, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jeremy Lasich

Editor’s note: This question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears occasionally in the Daily Gazette.

Christopher Hill
Christopher Hill

What are your responsibilities as vice provost for research?

The way I’ve always characterized my responsibilities formally is that I facilitate, stimulate, regulate, and represent research at the university. Research for me in this position has meant not only dealing with the funded researchers who get outside sponsored program funding from government, industry, other universities, and so on, but it also extends to a concern for all of the scholarship and creative work that goes on at the university whether or not it is sponsored by the outside.

Within those four broad responsibilities, I’d say facilitating research includes administrative oversight and responsibility for the Office of Sponsored Programs. On the stimulation end, I spend a lot of time with faculty, deans, associate deans, and chairs thinking about how there might be new opportunities for programs or funding. For example, recently the Department of Homeland Security announced an opportunity for a competitive grant to establish a major new center for behavioral and social science aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism. So Daniele Struppa and I called a meeting with all areas of the university involved—about 35 people—to brainstorm the best way to approach this opportunity. That’s one illustration of trying to broker a larger university response than might happen just at the instigation of one individual.

Other entities under my guidance include the Office of Technology Transfer, George Mason Intellectual Properties Inc., the faculty study leave program, and the summer research program. As Mason has matured in its research activities and has gotten involved in more sophisticated and complex arenas, we’ve had to update many of our policies and procedures to reflect the new realities. We’ve worked on our conflict of interest policy, our copyright policy, and our patent policy, which all fall under my watch.

Representing research has both an internal and external side. When I started in this position in 1997, Mason had not really committed to being a research institution; we were in transition from the [George] Johnson to the [Alan] Merten era. Back then, we weren’t fully focused on research and we didn’t talk internally about it. I was the first full-time person in this position, and I took it upon myself to talk up research all the time. Over the years, through my efforts, along with President Merten and [Provost] Peter Stearns, and many others, the role of research and scholarship, in defining what George Mason is, has changed. Externally, I serve on a variety of state-level committees and commissions representing the university. On Capitol Hill, I organize our efforts to seek earmarked funds from Congress, at which we are very successful.

Regulation is the fourth leg of the job. The conduct of research is increasingly subjected to oversight under laws passed by federal and state authorities, as well as university policies. The review and approval of research involving human subjects is under my supervision, as is the Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee and the Office of Laboratory Safety.

What is your office’s relationship with the Office of Sponsored Programs?

The director—Ann McGuigan—reports to me, and she also has a dotted line reporting relationship to Beth Brock [assistant vice president and controller] because of the responsibility we have for managing the federal and other funds that come into the university through the Office of Sponsored Programs. Last year we spent $65 million of other people’s money, and that has to go through our accounting systems.

How has research grown at Mason in the last decade?

Over the last seven or eight years, sponsored program funding has nearly tripled in nominal dollars. We’ve been growing in the 10-14 percent rate annually since 1996-97, and while that’s a nice rate of growth, it hasn’t done a whole lot to move us up in the national rankings of universities because the whole university research system is growing. We’re growing faster than the average by a considerable amount, but not fast enough that we are making a rapid rise through the ranks. That’s a frustration for all of us. Our ambition now is to become a major research university, to be not only a place that does some research and has lots of students, but a place that really is known for its academic work.

Why is the university moving in the direction of more research?

Doing research in a modern university enables you to attract a high-quality faculty. Generally speaking, folks who are engaged in inquiry in their field and who want to generate new ideas and new understandings typically are better teachers than those who are just transmitting what they have previously learned. You can see that in our recent faculty hires—both the established scholars whom we’ve been able to recruit into many parts of the university, as well as the young scholars who have joined us across the university-have outstanding research backgrounds.

Also, over the past 20 years, both government officials and private sector leaders have become convinced that doing research in a region or a place contributes to economic development and industrial growth in that place, and that’s a good thing. Developing new industries and creating new jobs is crucial in a region like ours, and in the center of that should be an active research university. There isn’t another university besides George Mason that serves those needs in Northern Virginia. The two closest are the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, but they are far enough away from the Northern Virginia high-tech community, both physically and in terms of what their interests are in research, that they are not much of a factor in industrial development here. We are actually under some substantial pressure now from the business community to grow our research, to grow our related technology transfer commercialization activities, and to move into the area of new business startups based on university technology.

Our friends in the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and in the Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun County economic development agencies, are looking to us to develop the new ideas that will drive the next wave of economic activity in Northern Virginia. The economy has done awfully well in Northern Virginia in the last 50 years on the combination of federal contracts, telecommunications, and the Internet; what’s next? One of the arguments I would make is that “next” is most likely to come from George Mason. We compare ourselves to really outstanding places like Stanford or MIT that have a long history of their faculty and students generating new ideas, starting new companies, and building business with international impact like Raytheon, Google, and Hewlett Packard, which contributed to the dynamic growth in their region.

George Mason is not responsible for companies like MCI, America Online, and the many other companies that have really grown and built this region. As they grew they needed us to provide human resources with our graduates who work there, so we’ve been an important supplier in that respect, but not an especially important supplier of their intellectual resources. That’s the new role that I see for us in the Northern Virginia economy. We don’t want to abandon our role as a human resources supplier; in fact, that role is ever-increasing in quality and quantity as well, but we want to assume a greater role as a supplier of important new ideas. We can really see that now, for example, in Prince William with the working partnership between George Mason and the county.

Can you talk about George Mason’s first research building and what it will bring to the university?

Research I is going to be a four-story, 100,000 square-foot building. Approximately half of that building will house the School of Computational Sciences (SCS). The first thing it brings is 100,000 square feet of desperately needed research space, and it will allow SCS to consolidate its Fairfax activities, which are presently in seven different locations. It will bring the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) back to the center of campus-the office is now in Patriot Square, which is a major inconvenience because faculty members need to interact quite often with OSP staff. It will also, obviously, be a symbol of this new role at George Mason, and while the name is not very sexy, it will say to the community that we have made a major commitment to research. The building will also have a small conference suite that can host meetings of up to about 100 people, with breakout rooms and a nice multimedia center. The building will include an observatory. The Physics and Astronomy Department is extremely excited about that. It’s the central architectural feature of the building, and it will, among other things, be a place where the community comes to use the telescopes.

What are some of the challenges your office is dealing with right now?

The greatest challenge at George Mason is inadequate support infrastructure for research. We are desperately short of staff in the Office of Sponsored Programs and research support staff in the academic units. Space is definitely still an issue. Even though Research I is nearly half the size of the Johnson Center, the day it opens it will be overflowing. To meet these needs we simply need more money.

There are also some critical functions that could inhibit our growth. If you look at our profile of research areas and fields you will quickly note gaps in areas we don’t cover. It’s not that we don’t have anybody, but relative to our size we do very little experimental science in physics or chemistry, and only a bit more in the life sciences. In materials science, we have a handful of dedicated faculty who do mostly non-experimental work. Our profile matches the profile of our local industry niche, but it means we’ve grown the university without a major commitment to experimental science. We’re starting now to build first in the life sciences, then in the physical sciences. Once we do that, we will need things like an instrument shop and an adequate chemical storage facility, neither of which we now have.

Christopher Hill plans to step down as vice provost for research. A search for his replacement is under way.

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