Four years after launch, U-M Biosciences Initiative reviews progress and looks to the future
Since its launch in 2017, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel’s Biosciences Initiative has established nine major research initiatives on campus and has taken other significant steps designed to propel U-M to the forefront of the life sciences.
Key elements of the multiyear strategy include the hiring of 30 tenure-track faculty and a one-time investment of $150 million. To date, $133 million and all 30 tenure lines have been allocated.
The ongoing efforts—which were interrupted by the pandemic and the associated U-M hiring and spending freezes—are detailed in a new progress report (PDF) from the Biosciences Initiative.
“All of the elements are in place for U-M to fully achieve our potential during this era of unprecedented opportunities for discovery,” Schlissel states in the report’s introductory Message from the President. “We are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic well-positioned to drive rapid advances in the biosciences—and uphold our mission to serve the public through excellence in research and education.”
The nine major research initiatives funded to date focus on emerging areas of science and include a new institute for the study of global change biology, a center for the study of infectious disease threats such as COVID-19, efforts to develop novel treatments for brain cancer and traumatic brain injuries, and a project to rapidly expand U-M’s nascent Center for RNA Biomedicine.
In addition to funding large research programs and several smaller efforts known as Exploratory Research opportunities, the Biosciences Initiative has created programs and competitions that focus on major areas for long-term institutional success: enhancing faculty recruitment and development, upgrading discovery resources, and improving communication and synergy across the biosciences.
To advance those goals, the Biosciences Initiative:
- Created the Mid-Career Biosciences Faculty Achievement Recognition (MBioFAR) program, which recognizes exceptional mid-career faculty in the biosciences and supports the type of high-risk, high-reward research that is often not funded by conventional granting agencies.
- Created the Ideas Lab program to advance the careers of junior faculty and to encourage transdisciplinary research. Modeled on a National Science Foundation initiative, this program brings together 25 U-M faculty members in intensive three-day retreats to design research projects that address a specific problem.
- Invested $5.6 million to add new instrumentation to existing core laboratories across the university. The effort brought new mass spectrometers and the first light sheet microscope to core labs, upgraded U-M’s nuclear magnetic resonance facilities and provided the latest software.
- Collaborated with Medical School staff to create the new Michigan Research Cores website, which details the services and instrumentation available to U-M investigators at 95 core laboratories across the university.
- Expanded the Biological Sciences Scholars Program, which had been limited to the Medical School, to the entire university. The BSSP program is one of the most successful mechanisms for highly competitive recruitment of new assistant professors at the university. To date, nine candidates have been recruited using this mechanism.
- Advanced a DEI program under the auspices of the provost’s office, with four positions for candidates with outstanding credentials in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.
Signs of a powerful return on this biosciences investment are already appearing, according to the progress report. The initiative has inspired collaborations across 14 U-M schools, colleges and institutes, and faculty of exceptional talent are being recruited into both the assistant professor and senior faculty ranks. Of the 30 tenured positions allocated, five have been filled and another hire is pending.
In addition, Biosciences Initiative research programs have attracted multiple federal grants, an industry contract and a philanthropic donation. A National Institutes of Health grant to faculty at the Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats, for example, enabled investigators there to study immunity to SARS-CoV-2 infection in health care workers and other U-M employees.
“BSI programs are now at an exciting moment, poised to move forward with execution of their respective visions,” said Roger Cone, U-M vice provost and chair of the Biosciences Initiative Coordinating Committee, who presented the progress report’s findings at the July 15 U-M Board of Regents meeting.
“Despite early indications of progress, however, important work remains to be done. The vast majority of BSI funds, although allocated, have not yet been put to work,” said Cone, who is also director of U-M’s Life Sciences Institute. “I am excited to think about long-term opportunities and discoveries as we continue to guide this initiative into the future.”