Partners in Science: Intercollegiate collaboration in Utah is good for everyone

Universities, like corporations, exist in a competitive dynamic with one another. They compete for funds, for prestige and for top-tier students. Example: for one university to climb in relative status—those all-important ranking lists—others must decline. For one institution to land a coveted National Science Foundation grant, others go away empty-handed. Yet, amid such zero-sum dynamics, universities find plenty of reasons to collaborate with one another.

“Interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations are critical,” says Ivy Estabrooke, who directs the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) program. “Bringing different perspectives and ideas together is critical in science.” Estabrooke contrasts “incremental research”—the sort of stepwise research progress characteristic of most uni-disciplinary research labs around the world—with “true innovation,” which she describes as breakthrough developments that bring about nearly immediate change.

“Interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations are critical. Bringing different perspectives and ideas together is critical in science.” – Ivy Estabrooke, Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR)

Collaboration, inter and intra

Even within a given university, departmental alliances are key for such innovation to occur. Indeed, entire degrees, as well as departments, are emerging with multidisciplinary collaboration at their core. Take, for example, the University of Utah’s new Multi-Disciplinary Design Program, which engages “Design, Engineering, Business, Psychology and Communications around the common framework of product design,” per the program’s website. Such alliances tend to mitigate the rivalries endemic between various departments and disciplines—do the humanities still matter? Does math or engineering contribute more to the organization’s prestige?—and generate positive-sum (i.e., win-win) opportunities for shared recognition, joint funding and group contribution.

Inter-university collaboration scales the same team dynamic up for even more potential. “No university can cover all expertise in a domain,” says Mark McLellan, vice president for research at Utah State University. “So you go hunting.”

McLellan points out that faculty actually have significant incentive to seek out research partners at other institutions when their own university lacks the right specialist. “First and foremost, you can get funding that otherwise wouldn’t be available,” by compiling a well-rounded team that matches a given grant’s specifications. Second, a research professor “can attract the very best grad students” by participating in revolutionary projects of large scope. And, finally, you create professional credentials more impressive, by some standards, than those of the solitary researcher toiling through the years within a single focus.

“No university can cover all expertise in a domain. So you go hunting.” – Mark McLellan, vice president for research at Utah State University.

Research 1 collaboration in Utah

Utah’s universities have a robust collaborative ecosystem. Indeed, the Utah Energy Research Triangle (UERT) of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development is predicated on the state’s universities’ intercollaboration. UERT “is a competitive grant program aimed at fostering energy innovation across Utah’s universities.”

Ivy Estabrooke explains that, to receive UERT funding, a proposal must involve three Utah research institutions. Two of the three must be Research 1 universities (a Carnegie classification denoting the highest tier of research activity and infrastructure; according to Estabrooke, Utah has three such: the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University). “The third can be non-Research 1.” Estabrooke says that “the multi-institution component is critical. You have to work together to get the money.”

Estabrooke gives as an example a UERT-funded project aimed at mitigating toxic water by using a particular type of algae. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, generates large amounts of wastewater. This “produced water,” as it’s euphemistically referred to in the industry, collected into large ponds, releases high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air of the Uintah Basin. If the algae can feed off the organic compounds in the water, VOCs won’t have a chance to evaporate. “All three of our Research 1 universities were involved in this project,” Estabrooke says. “It was a collaboration between Jaron Hansen from Brigham Young University, Andy Hong with the University of Utah and Ron Sims at Utah State University.”

Mark McLellan recounts numerous other instances of inter-university partnership:

  • BYU led an Alzheimer’s research project and brought USU in as a partner
  • The U and USU worked together to study late-life health
  • A BYU/USU partnership developed electrical systems for small satellites
  • Another BYU/USU collaboration developed vascular catheters
  • A USU/U team studied “labor and sovereignty issues among First Nations of the United States”
  • Still another USU/U partnership involved R & D into turbine thermoelectrics

“Different institutions have different strengths,” says Estabrooke. “The University of Utah doesn’t have the incredible aerospace engineering, modeling and simulation capabilities for which USU is known.” On the other hand, “the U of U has a real strength in its scientific computing institute.” Put the two together, and you’ve got a team that transcends the abilities of either institution.

“We’ve gotten a lot of NASA grants by bringing the U of U in as a partner,” McLellan says.

Also good for students

Not only to intercollegiate partnerships keep funds flowing and academic careers rising, but they expose students to richer research opportunities. A chemistry student involved in the UERT-funded “Catalytic Conversion of Carbon Dioxide to Carbon Monoxide and Methanol” research project will benefit from exposure to experts from each of Utah’s Big 3 universities. To give one further example, the “Computer Modeling of Winter Ozone Formation in the Uintah Basin” project brings computer science, big data, chemistry and other disciplines to bear. In addition to working with experts from three universities, students grow by partnering across multiple domains.

Who knows; maybe during one of such joint research projects a specific interaction will set a student off on a trajectory that would have been unlikely to happen otherwise. They encounter a professor with a different take on an area of interest; they talk to a team from a rival (now partner) university who have an entirely different approach—when you rearrange the pieces, the opportunities for intellectual cross-pollination are endless.

Interstate, international, inter-everything

Not that Utah’s universities restrict themselves to their fellow state institutions. “When you’re looking for the right collaborators, you don’t care where you find them,” McLellan explains. “We’ve partnered successfully with Colorado State, Michigan State, Montana State and a number of other universities across the country.”

Given the extremely niche-oriented sub-specialization into which any discipline divides, project leaders often have to look further afield to find the right researcher.

Additionally, many projects involve trans-national academic collaboration. For example, the University of Utah is deeply involved in the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCASW), which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID supported the five-year project to the tune of $127 million with the goal of securing “the availability of clean water through education and applied research” in collaboration with Pakistan’s Mehran University of Engineering & Technology (MUET).

According to a release by the University of Utah, the USPCASW program focuses on curriculum advancement, hydraulics, integrated water resource management, sanitation, environmental engineering, network building and workforce development “to achieve water security in Pakistan.” Over the past year or so, U of U faculty and students have made numerous trips to Jamshoro, MUET’s hometown, to participate in cross-institutional collaboration with MUET faculty and students. Similarly, MUET faculty and students have had opportunities to travel to Salt Lake City and learn with their University of Utah counterparts.

Shrinking distances

Whether the partnership spans the globe or merely stretches into the next county, intercollegiate research collaboration transforms competition into its opposite. Unlike the corporate competitive landscape, academic collaborations transcend the lines of organizational boundaries. When a researcher “goes hunting,” to borrow Mark McLellan’s phrase, she’s free to look for research collaborators nationwide. And, when she finds them, she doesn’t have to poach them from their current institution—she merely enlists them into a shared goal that will bring prestige and funding to both respective universities.

Utah is on the map for its tech sector and its economy; its institutions of higher education, likewise, are vital components of our state’s ecosystem. A robust brew of public and private partnerships, competition and cooperation, educational research, and yes, cross-university collaboration—it all makes Utah work.

Jacob Andra is a writer and content marketing consultant in Salt Lake City, Utah. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Jacob Andra is a writer, award-winning digital marketer, and technologist living in Salt Lake City. Specialties include account-based marketing, growth hacking for startups, blockchain, fintech, and international issues. He enjoys history, the outdoors, podcasts, and a good book.