Another Record-Breaking Year for Northwestern Research

University’s discovery ecosystem thrives as sponsored funding surpasses $700M for the first time

By Roger Anderson and Matt GolosinskiOctober 16, 2018

Northwestern’s sponsored research awards grew to $702.1 million last fiscal year, the largest amount in the University's history and a 3.8 percent increase over the previous year's record-breaking $676.5 million.

The 2017-18 fiscal year punctuates a decade of sustained research growth at Northwestern. In the past 10 years, annual sponsored research has risen 60 percent ($263 million). Last year alone, the University’s Sponsored Research Office processed more than $3 billion in award proposals.

“Annual research funding is vital for faculty all across Northwestern to pursue pathbreaking discoveries that benefit society and improve the world,” says Jay Walsh, vice president for research. “So, too, are other elements of our research environment, including world-class core facilities and physical space; infrastructure; administrative support; and a culture that encourages collaborative discovery. We continue to strengthen Northwestern’s research ecosystem and increase the scope and impact of the knowledge created here. Naturally, the true measure of the research enterprise is the impact that new discoveries have on academic fields and society at large.”

Reputation Rises

As Northwestern’s research funding has risen, so has the University’s position among the nation’s top academic institutions. For example, the University climbed from 14 (2008) to 10 (2018) in US News and World Report’s annual rankings.

“Northwestern’s reputation as a great research institution is much more than just a dollar figure, as important as that support is to our efforts. The bedrock of our reputation is the global impact our faculty are making, the international awards our students receive, and the success of our graduate students after they defend their dissertations,” says Walsh.

Strong proposal activity in the 2017-18 fiscal year from the Feinberg School of Medicine resulted in more than $484.6 million dollars of sponsored awards secured by principal investigators at the medical school. This figure reflects a 13 percent increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health last year. 

Also increasing in year-over-year award funding was the McCormick School of Engineering ($80.9M, a 13 percent increase) and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences ($91.4M, a 6 percent rise). Additional award information can be found on the Sponsored Research site

Breakthrough Science

Among the 3,366 research grants awarded to Northwestern during the last fiscal year was funding to advance potentially transformative discovery on glioblastoma (GBM), one of the most common and aggressive of primary malignant brain cancers. In August, the Feinberg School and Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University obtained a highly competitive $11.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute that supports research to help people diagnosed with GBM, which has a median survival rate of just 15 months. With this new award, Northwestern investigators — led by Maciej (Matt) Lesniak and C. David James, both neurological surgery — have established a Specialized Program of Research Excellence in brain cancer with an emphasis on GBM.

Significant financial support also included a multimillion-dollar commitment to establish the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, co-directed by Richard Carthew, the Owen L. Coon Professor of Molecular Biosciences, and William Kath, professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics. The center will apply mathematics to developmental biological research, according to Carthew. “The hope is that mathematics will revolutionize the study of biology in a manner emulating the impact that mathematics has had on physics research.” 

The National Science Foundation renewed its support for Northwestern’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) in 2018. Directed by Mark Hersam, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, MRSEC’s mission combines research, teaching, and outreach initiatives to produce high-impact knowledge with societal value through the efforts of its two main research groups: one explores reconfigurable nanoelectronic materials systems with the potential for applications in neuromorphic (brain-like) computing; the other looks to discover inorganic materials with novel combinations of properties, such as high electrical conductivity and low thermal conductivity. Since 1959, MRSEC has helped secure Northwestern’s global reputation as a leader in the field and is the nation’s longest-running, continuously funded center of its kind.

Administrative Teamwork

Northwestern Research — an office composed of 19 specialized units — provides University investigators with a portfolio of expert services and resources, including strategic guidance, safety and regulatory training, grant administration and research protocol support, core facilities and space administration, innovation commercialization, team science development, and more. Northwestern Research plays an important catalytic role in the research ecosystem that Walsh credits as integral to the University’s knowledge creation. He also cites collaboration among Research and the central administration, Human Resources, IT, Facilities Management, and the schools as vital to create the necessary infrastructure for discovery to occur.

“Our investigators are at the heart of our research success,” says Walsh. “You need talent to drive breakthroughs. You also need faculty, fellows, staff, and students who can work together with other talented people. Expert administrative support, for example, allows researchers to focus on their investigative work, rather than on administrative details required to keep one of the nation’s leading research institutions running.”

Cores Grow

Administrative talent also helps manage Northwestern’s 53 shared core facilities, shared spaces filled with cutting-edge instrumentation and teams of PhD-level scientists who know how to generate valuable research results from those tools in collaboratation with investigators. Cores are on the “leading-edge of technology implementation,” says Andy Ott, director of core facilities, noting examples such as CRISPR gene editing, cryo-electron microscopy, and top-down proteomics. Increasingly, cores also are included as part of the research grant-writing process and have the infrastructure and culture to support cross-disciplinary investigations.

Financially, Ott says, Northwestern’s core facilities have increased their revenue 250 percent since 2009, reaching $25 million in 2017. The University has made targeted and substantial investments in cores, which are an integral part of University Research Institutes and Centers. One example is the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, which is in part focused on drug discovery and development, and built around nine such facilities.

“We expect to see an increase in Northwestern’s overall research growth and impact,” says Walsh, in part due to the creation of new spaces, such as the Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center and the Technological Institute’s AB Infill. “Northwestern is an extremely interdisciplinary institution, as well as one of the nation’s most collaborative administrative universities. The combination creates an ecosystem where sustained growth has become the norm.”

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