1. Remarks at MCubed Symposium

    October 9, 2014

    Note: As prepared for delivery

    It’s an honor to be here to celebrate the success of MCubed and the researchers and students who have brought this exciting new dimension to discovery at the University of Michigan.

    I especially want to thank Provost Pollack and the schools, colleges and external groups that have given their support to MCubed, along with Mark Burns and the entire MCubed team.

    The enterprise of research at a place like U of M must be innovative and forward-looking, and MCubed has blazed a new trail in this regard.

    The achievements in a relatively short time are remarkable.

    This initiative drew about 700 faculty members from 25 campus units, including all of our schools and colleges.

    The cubes attracted faculty of all ranks, with a representative distribution from across the university, and I’ve heard from deans that MCubed has even been used as a tool to recruit new faculty.

    MCubed was successful in terms of productivity as well.

    The cubes secured $20 million in external funds, while generating 39 publications with dozens more in the works, and another 42 scholarly and creative products.

    All of you have my congratulations for your success.

    As a physician-scientist myself, I appreciate these accomplishments, and they take me back to the various stages of my career as a scientist, teacher, dean, provost, and now president.

    My first experience in the research world was volunteering to work in a lab while I was an undergraduate student at Princeton. I took photographs of chromosome preparations that my mentor used in his effort to map genes onto human chromosomes.

    I began college programmed from childhood to become a medical doctor. I viewed my early efforts in the lab as part of the pathway to medical school.

    The problem was that I fell in love with laboratory science.

    I found it intoxicating to work with my hands to generate data that people could argue about, leading to new knowledge and increased understanding of how life worked.

    That passion is ultimately what led me to pursue MD/PhD training for seven years at Johns Hopkins funded by the NIH’s Medical Scientist Training Program, and it has remained with me over the ensuing decades.

    I went on to do a residency in Internal Medicine at Hopkins followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT’s Whitehead Institute with David Baltimore studying the developmental biology of the immune system.

    I began my independent career as an assistant professor back at Johns Hopkins.

    I will never forget the stark difference between my first weeks and months on the faculty when measured against my time as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow.

    In that work, I was often immersed in large groups of students and mentors, lab partners and senior faculty.

    Suddenly, as a brand new assistant professor, I was alone in a big newly renovated but empty laboratory with a modest amount of start-up funding as dowry.

    Despite having prepared for this moment for more than a decade, there was still so much to learn, including how to secure funding, how to recruit, hire and supervise students and staff, and how to be a good teacher and mentor, and how to reach out to develop appropriate collaborations.

    It was both daunting and exhilarating, and it is a set of experiences that I have held closely as I have accepted successively greater leadership roles in the academy.

    Now as President, I am applying those lessons every day.

    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.

    I want Michigan to aspire to conduct research at the highest levels for the benefit of society, and be known as the best public institution for discovery in the world.

    One of my most important duties is working with faculty to make that happen.

    I have spent the last three months getting to know U of M, and it’s clear that taken as a whole, the breadth of excellence here is almost unmatched in the academy.

    From Architecture and Urban Design to Social Work with our 17 other schools in between, with an alphabet soup of renowned institutes such as LSI and ISR and IHPI, we can boast 100 graduate and professional programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields.

    At the same time, the depth and impact of the research we do is breathtaking.

    Provost Pollack and I also were privileged to honor 26 colleagues earlier this week at the Faculty Awards Dinner.

    The awards recognized everything from dance to robotics, and collectively, the U of M’s contributions to discovery and understanding are extraordinary.

    Also Monday, we announced that the university set a new annual record for tech transfer, which includes inventions, agreements and startups launched.

    This breadth and the level of impact have confirmed to me that the potential here at the U of M is as promising as I thought it was when I accepted this job.

    And that potential is what excites me most.

    It’s the potential for synergy across so many units, and the ability to work together in ways that no other institution can really do.

    It’s the potential to take on the biggest problems in society, and bring the full weight of our intellectual capacities to bear on issues that affect lives in our communities and across the globe

    What I would like to do as president in the months and years ahead is to work with you to figure out how to fully tap into this comprehensive excellence and realize the potential of strategic synergy across the full breadth of our institution.

    When it comes to academic strategy, our 19 schools and colleges often function as independent pillars of excellence, which undoubtedly have strengthened the University but also leave greater potential for collaboration.

    Our individual faculty can and do find collaborators on campus regardless of their departmental affiliation. About 15 percent of the research proposals submitted at the University of Michigan involve more than one of our schools or colleges, and over 40% involve more than one principal investigator. We are truly a collaborative community.

    There is a lot of great work that comes out of those collaborations.

    M-Cubed is one example, and I know there are others, such as the Mobility Transformation Center and the effort that saved the life of an infant through implantation of a tracheal splint produced with a 3D printer.

    These are fantastic, and they reflect the remarkable collaborative ethos among the faculty here.

    I want us to take this higher, beyond the level of individual collaborative projects to the level of strategic synergy amongst our schools, colleges and institutes.

    This does not mean giving up the entrepreneurial spirit that has created the breadth of excellence across our 19 schools and colleges.

    It means asking how we can provide schools and colleges with the right resources and tools to plan together so that their investments in infrastructure, faculty, and programs are purposefully complementary.

    In other words, how do we make our strength greater than the sum of our many excellent parts?

    There are very few big problems in this world that can be solved by single disciplines, and when our faculty aspire to take them on, I want them to have the freedom and the support necessary to achieve those ambitions.

    We certainly have the talent and the track record to do that.

    With our 200-year history as a public institution, our steady flow of talented students, and our assembled breadth of influential excellence, we are uniquely qualified and, I believe, empowered to solve these big problems.

    There simply is no university better suited to advance the highest ideals of what a public research university should be.

    I am excited to begin the first exploration into this idea today, and this initial step will involve the life sciences.

    I am pleased to announce that I am convening a President’s Advisory Panel on the Biosciences.

    The panel is charged with developing and recommending a strategy that will propel Michigan to the forefront in life science research by optimally leveraging our comprehensive excellence.

    This is a big job, made no less difficult because we are a big place, so getting the right people in the room is crucial.

    I have invited a small group of leading faculty from the life sciences and fields associated with biological discovery to serve on the panel.

    It will be led by Provost Pollack, and all of the faculty members are top researchers and thought leaders in their disciplines.

    The names of the panelists and my charge to them will be posted on my website.

    Like I said before, I know from personal experience that faculty members have a close familiarity with the challenges facing the research enterprise.

    I specifically wanted faculty to have the dominant voice in this effort.

    This work comes at a critical moment for society.

    The biosciences have become a fundamental target of discovery in many fields once distant from biology, both here at U of M and across the world.

    Engineers, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians and others are helping unravel the fundamental secrets of life and contributing to the development of treatments for disease.

    Social, environmental, and public health research is teasing apart the many and varied influences that have impacts on life science at levels that range from the biology of living cells to the quality of human life.

    This form of scientific research certainly looks much different than it did when I started that lab at Johns Hopkins.

    The environment in which that work takes place is also very different.

    The biomedical research symposium that was part of my inauguration set forth a major challenge confronting the life sciences that we must solve in order to assure our Michigan’s future as a global leader in the life sciences.

    It’s an additional challenge that makes the panel’s work even more timely and important.

    There is a basic and systematic mismatch between supply and demand – the number of researchers and trainees exceeds the amount of resources available to sustain both their careers and the bioscience research enterprise.

    Harold Varmus, who led the discussion, called it a Malthusian dilemma, because the number of doctoral graduates we are producing is growing exponentially while the resources available to perform research are barely growing at all.

    At the same time we are seeing greater international competition.

    This has led success rates to fall sharply for NIH grant applicants, and the system as we know it is no longer adequately supportive of the best science.

    I am asking the members of the new panel to examine these external challenges and any internal factors that could hold us back, while seeking to determine how we can best leverage our strengths.

    It will look at issues such as synergistic investment across schools and colleges in building, recruiting, equipping and hiring.

    It will work to unite our system, remove barriers, and minimize redundancies, so we can become a strategically coherent institution.

    The panel has its work cut out for it, but the benefits could be tremendous.

    Imagine, for example, if our schools of Medicine, Engineering, Information, LSA, and Pharmacy teamed up with the Institute for Social Research and the School of Public Health and focused their collective power on a single problem, like controlling the local and global spread of emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola in nations with limited infrastructure.

    All of society would benefit.

    Those potential benefits are why I am open to any ideas from the panel.

    They can be novel or even radical.

    I’m sure that M-Cubed may have just been a wild idea at some point, and look at how it has grown into something much larger.

    I have promised to consider each recommendation from the panel, and I look forward to doing so.

    Final recommendations are scheduled for the end of the 2015 winter semester.

    I felt it was appropriate to make this announcement at MCubed, because we have so many innovative researchers and scholars here in the audience.

    We have gathered today in the name of collaboration, and in celebration of the enormous possibilities that arise when talented faculty from the University of Michigan come together to produce scholarship.

    Like I said, this panel is just one example of our potential.

    We should look for other ways to engage the full spectrum of our expertise and breadth.

    I can think of numerous community and global problems outside of the biosciences that would benefit from this attention: Public education in disadvantaged areas. Sustainable energy. Clean air and water. Poverty and income inequality.

    I could list many more.

    My question today is who in the world is in a better position to contribute to the solution of these problems than us, the University of Michigan?

    After three months of meeting with faculty of all stripes and disciplines, I am confident that we have the ambition and the talent to reach a new meta level in our collaborations that will make a difference.

    I also believe that the mechanics of discovery are heading in a direction that plays in our favor. One might say, the arc of discovery is long, but it bends towards Ann Arbor.

    Multi-disciplinary approaches are also more attractive in terms of funding – and they also have the most potential to make the kind of impact we should be known for at the University of Michigan.

    Finding the answers we seek will take all of our collective intellectual power. And our trust in one another to step beyond the traditional ways that our campus has been organized.

    To be the leaders and best, we must move together to adapt quickly, nimbly and efficiently.

    We cannot be 19 separate parts and expect to truly excel in the current ecosystem.

    We have to be one.

    And we can be the best one there is.

    We are the university that can do this and do it best.

    I look forward to taking on this work with you, my colleagues, at the University of Michigan.

    I hope we can develop strategies that will allow your talents to best flourish, best teach our students, and position the University of Michigan for perpetual excellence.

    Thank you for your dedication to our students, your passion for discovery, and your innovative spirit.

    Thank you very much.