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NIU research funding hits 10-year high

September 22, 2021

Despite the pandemic, the university’s research, service and engagement enterprises are firing on all cylinders. External funding awarded to faculty and staff hit a 10-year high in Fiscal Year 2021.

According to the latest Annual Report from NIU’s Sponsored Programs Administration, 127 faculty and staff members won 343 awards for research, instruction, outreach, public service and other activities, totaling $80 million. Federal COVID-19 funds accounted for a significant share of that dollar amount, but even in their absence, sponsored funding is at its highest level in a decade, having increased by nearly 50% over the last five years.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment for faculty and staff, especially considering the many challenges of the past year,” said Dara Little, assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs within NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships (RIPS).

Funding specifically for NIU research reached $14.3 million, also a 10-year-high. Among the NIU research projects:

  • Building a system to convert carbon dioxide waste into fuel.
  • Creating a novel pediatric hearing aid.
  • Advancing long-range severe weather forecasts.
  • Developing a Spanish-language mobile app to treat depression and anxiety.
  • Assisting in the recovery of an endangered turtle species.
  • Studying the combined use of robots and virtual reality in children’s learning.

Federal agencies provided more than 80 percent of NIU’s research funding, supporting work across a wide array of disciplines. The top federal funders of NIU research were the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), respectively.

A notable change in FY21 is the increased share of direct DOE funding. Contributing to the increase is a highly competitive award received by Chemistry Professor Tao Xu. Working in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory and other institutions, Xu secured funding for a $2 million project to develop a prototype system to cleanly convert carbon dioxide waste into ethanol.

“From the perspective of an experimental scientist like me, external funding enables us to design, conduct and realize novel and impactful experiments using cutting-edge facilities such as Argonne, where we aren’t limited by the availability to instruments and equipment,” Xu said. “External funding also supports talented students so they can focus their time on the forefront of research without having to worry about their financial support.”

Xu said he’s grateful for the work of Sponsored Programs Administration (SPA), which supports faculty and staff engaged in external funding efforts.

“NIU SPA staff members always provide professional service to make sure each part of our proposals, particularly the budget, is in compliance with the funding agencies’ requirements so that the proposals will be reviewed,” Xu said.

Most NIU colleges saw increases in their total research award amounts in FY21.

“Part of the reason we’re seeing the increases is an intentional effort at the college and university levels to enhance support for externally funded programs,” said Gerald Blazey, NIU’s vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships.

One example is the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET), where external funding nearly doubled over the previous year, to $2 million. CEET Dean Donald Peterson said the college sought to strategically expand its research enterprise to support its doctoral students. In 2019, CEET launched doctoral degree programs in mechanical, electrical, and industrial and systems engineering.

“When the Ph.D. programs came on board, we started thinking about how to secure more research funding to support our talented Ph.D. students,” Peterson said. “We wanted to identify the pathways that would be the most successful.”

In collaboration with RIPS, the college contracted with Hanover Research, a company that provides targeted guidance to bolster the quality, volume and success rates of grant applications. Eight faculty members participated in a grant-writing cohort led by Hanover (with another round of eight this academic year). At the same time, Peterson said, deans and associate deans enhanced mentorship of faculty seeking support for their research.

One outcome was an Early Career Research Award of $430,000 to Assistant Professor Mohammad Moghimi from the National Institutes of Health. Moghimi is developing a non-invasive, Band-Aid-like hearing aid that can be secured behind an infant’s ear to conduct sound through the child’s bone.

“The Ph.D. programs gave us the ability to go after these grants,” said Peterson, who added that the research projects benefit undergraduates, too. “We get all of our undergrads involved in research from day one.”

Beginning this semester, RIPS also is providing research development support across campus through a pilot grantsmanship program that aims to help NIU faculty focus their research enterprises, foster interdisciplinary collaborations and sharpen their grant-writing skills. The STARS Faculty Academy (which is still accepting participants) was inspired by a doctoral-level course taught by Melani Duffrin, a professor of Interdisciplinary Health Professions who has an impressive track record in the external-funding arena.

“We want to help our faculty develop research, service, and outreach programs to meet real-world challenges head-on with interdisciplinary, forward-thinking research and artistry projects,” Blazey said. “Importantly, their work creates opportunities for our students to be involved in projects on the leading edge of their disciplines. In this way, we’re encouraging the next generation of innovators.”

Competitive research and instruction are among the key components of NIU’s total external funding portfolio, but public service awards also were a significant factor in FY21.

Public service projects bring various resources and capabilities of NIU to the community in response to local needs. These projects attracted 39 awards totaling more than $17 million in external funding this past year. Read more about these and other projects in the Sponsored Programs Administration annual report.