September 23, 2015
The University of Michigan should strive to become a magnet for the best biosciences faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students in the world, according to a faculty panel convened by President Mark Schlissel.
Achieving that goal will require both cultural and structural changes that "transform the bioscience ecosystem" at U-M and make it "home to one of the most prominent programs in the biosciences in the world," the President's Advisory Panel on the Biosciences concludes in its final report to Schlissel.
The 17-member panel was chaired by Provost Martha Pollack and included faculty members across a range of disciplines — from biology, chemistry and psychology to the neurosciences, math and biomedical engineering.
Last fall, Schlissel asked the panel to develop recommendations about how best to advance the university's efforts in the biosciences. Panel members were invited to suggest innovative or even potentially radical ideas for organizing the biosciences at U-M.
"This report provides a thoughtful analysis of the current state of the life sciences at our university, including a candid assessment of our strengths and the challenges we face," Schlissel said. "Most importantly, it goes on to describe what an ideal future for U-M life sciences might look like and suggests a variety of possible ways to get there."
In the coming weeks, Schlissel will reach out to campus leaders and life sciences faculty to share his thoughts and to seek input from others about how to move forward.
To ensure that the report includes a wide range of views on the topic, the panel reached out to the U-M community through four town halls and an anonymous online feedback form that generated nearly 600 comments.
Hour-long, targeted interviews with more than 20 biosciences leaders at U-M and other leading institutions were conducted. In addition, external site visits took place at the University of Washington, Seattle, the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University to gain insights into alternative approaches to organizing and fostering work in the biosciences.
In its final report, the panel focused on issues of institutional structure and culture and addressed the following question: What would it take to make U-M a powerhouse in the biosciences? For starters, it will require a significant investment in resources, including new funds to entice "game-changers" to come to U-M and stay.
"More than anything, the panel believes that the future of the biosciences at U-M rests on the people that we recruit, cultivate and retain," Pollack said.
"We need to support and nurture the innovative, risk-taking and highly productive faculty already at Michigan, while at the same time recruiting new faculty members who are game-changers, who will come with creativity, vision and energy, increasing our visibility and expanding our impact in bioscience research and education," she said.
U-M has significant strengths on which to build best-in-class biosciences programs, according to the panel.
Those strengths include the size and disciplinary scope of the overall biosciences enterprise; the breadth of excellence in disciplines outside of the biosciences; a strong culture of faculty collaboration; a number of first-rate scientific facilities; and a wholly owned and geographically contiguous hospital and health system.
Even so, there is "a widespread sense that we are not fully capitalizing on these advantages and do not yet provide the resources or incentives, nor have the optimal structure to attain our aspirations," according to the panel.
The list of possible changes suggested by the panel runs the gamut from creating more flexible approaches to space allocation or creating new named professorships at the junior and mid-career level to sweeping reorganizations of the university's bioscience departments and programs. The candidate structural changes identified by the panel include:
• Reorganizing existing departments to consolidate faculty who are presently spread across multiple departments with overlapping missions. Departmental reorganization might involve multiple schools, akin to the model of the biomedical engineering department, which is jointly administered by the Medical School and the College of Engineering.
• Creating a virtual school of biosciences that leaves intact the model of having departments within various schools and colleges while creating a mechanism to foster collaboration and coordinate interdisciplinary research and teaching. The virtual school would be under the direction of a new dean of biosciences.
• Creating a "biosciences network" of interdisciplinary research hubs, to include both existing research centers as well as new ones. All faculty members would retain departmental affiliation, and some would also be associated with a research hub, with hub leadership outside of individual schools.
• Developing a School of Integrated Biosciences that would be the tenure, teaching and research home for all faculty in the biosciences at U-M.
Structural changes are essential but will not be sufficient to make U-M a biosciences powerhouse, the report states. Several cultural challenges must also be overcome.
Cultural barriers impeding the U-M biosciences enterprise, according to the panel, include: too high an emphasis on external funding — as opposed to high-impact discoveries — as the metric for faculty success; a leadership culture that does not sufficiently incentivize risk-taking; and a lack of common mission, most notably between the Medical School and other units on campus.
"We need to develop a culture where everyone, from undergraduates through senior faculty and administrators, values scientific discovery, inquisitiveness, innovation, and risk-taking, and believes in recognizing and rewarding exceptional performance," the report states.