Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

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Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Michael McRobbie
Michael A. McRobbie, President of Indiana University
Photo courtesy Indiana University

A Time for Action

When Michael A. McRobbie delivered his first report to the Indiana University Board of Trustees as IU's 18th president, he issued a strong call for action. "This is not a time for edifying rhetoric or nostalgia for the past," McRobbie said. "It is a time for action—action on all fronts, vigorous action, continuing action, unrelenting action." McRobbie has been no stranger to action in the 10 years he has been affiliated with Indiana University. Here is a brief look at McRobbie's impact on IU's research and creative activity so far, with a few questions and answers about what's to come.

Since 1997, when he was hired by then-Indiana University President Myles Brand to create a modern information technology environment that would make IU a leader "in absolute terms for uses and applications of IT," Michael McRobbie has been committed to strengthening the IU's research mission. Before becoming IU's president on July 1, 2007, he worked to advance research in the life sciences, foster greater international academic collaborations, increase the university's presence in the growing field of genomics research, and further new frontiers in the arts and humanities. Those strategic efforts and others have moved IU to the forefront of the world's research universities.

When he arrived at IU a decade ago, McRobbie relied on his extensive background in high-performance computer networking to create the IU Information Technology Strategic Plan, which has served as a model for institutions across the nation. That plan led to IU's involvement in the Internet2 Abilene network, a national high-speed data network that supports research among universities across the country and has fostered relationships for high-speed connections around the world. McRobbie also founded IU's Pervasive Technology Laboratories, funded by a $30 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, to harness information technology opportunities and support economic development in the state of Indiana. To date, the Pervasive Technology Laboratories have generated seven spin-offs and invested in several other Indiana-based IT companies.

In 2003, McRobbie was given additional responsibilities as IU's vice president for research. In this role, he was involved in securing a $105 million grant (later increased to $155 million) from the Lilly Endowmen--the single largest grant ever received by IU--for the Indiana Genomics Initiative (INGEN). Through INGEN, IU is capitalizing on resources at its School of Medicine to create a world-class biomedical research enterprise. McRobbie also played a major part in securing a subsequent $53 million Lilly Endowment grant, announced in December 2004, resulting in the establishment of the Indiana Metabolomics and Cytomics Initiative (METACyt). The emerging fields of metabolomics and cytomics are bringing an explosion of genetic information to bear on scientists' understandings of the metabolism and the inner workings of cells.

METACyt has enabled IU Bloomington to broaden and intensify its life sciences research, retain distinguished scientists, attract new world-class scientists, and contribute to the state's economic development by transferring technology to new and existing life sciences businesses. More than $30 million in external funding for principal investigators has been awarded through METACyt. The initiative has also helped fund the purchase of IU's supercomputer system, "Big Red," one of the largest in the world, which is enabling new research capabilities in the life sciences, weather forecasting, and physics.

As interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at IU Bloomington, McRobbie continued to pursue IU's priorities in information technology and the life sciences, while also working to further the university's longstanding excellence in the arts and humanities. He played a major role in securing funding for the popular New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities Program, which has enabled faculty members on all eight IU campuses to expand their scholarship in the humanities and pursue adventurous directions in artistic creativity. Now in its fourth year, the program has supported more than 40 innovative projects.

McRobbie will seek to build on these accomplishments as IU's new president. As widespread changes occur on all of the university's campuses, and in higher education in general, he plans to work toward enhancing the university's life sciences programs, renewing IU's commitment to the arts and humanities, achieving greater internationalization, growing new partnerships with businesses around the world, and attracting and retaining the best faculty.

What areas of concentration do you anticipate in Indiana University's research program over the next ten years?

Michael A. McRobbie: One of the most significant challenges that universities will increasingly face is the retirement of a generation of remarkably talented and dedicated professors and administrators who have served the university with great distinction for decades. On the Bloomington campus alone, 565 of our tenured faculty, more than half of all of our faculty in this category, will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years.

One of the major challenges facing IU in the coming decade is managing this generational transformation, because the future of Indiana University will depend on its new faculty and administrative leaders.

This generational shift will have significant consequences for the university's research programs beyond the retirement of first-rate scientists. As baby boomers age, they will place increasing pressure on the health-care industry, and this kind of pressure will, no doubt, have an impact on research programs across the entire nation. The Indiana Life Sciences Initiative represents IU's investment in improving Hoosier health. Our current research programs in areas such as diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases promise to improve the future not only for citizens of the state of Indiana but for people across the nation and around the world.

Would you talk about the changing nature of the research environment?

MAM: One of the most exciting elements of the academic research community has always been its international dimension. Scholars from countries around the world gather at conferences, symposia, and workshops to compare notes about topics ranging from the latest archeological discoveries to the impact of dark energy on the universe. Such international collaboration over the years has, no doubt, led to ever greater discoveries in many areas of research.

In recent decades, however, the nature of international research has changed with tremendous improvements in information technology. Whereas in the past a letter might take a week to a month to wind its way around the world, now a colleague is a few keystrokes--and a few seconds--away. The Internet especially has removed the limitations in international research. "Cyber-research" is truly global. This enables scholars to share developments in their fields almost instantly, which quickens the pace of research. I am not convinced that we have yet seen the remarkable opportunities that can grow out of this quickened pace.

What do you see as one of the greatest strengths of research in American universities?

MAM: Beyond brilliant scientists and productive, innovative research programs, I see the four pillars that collectively support academic research in the United States as one of its greatest strengths. Those pillars are federal funding, state funding, tuition, and funding through philanthropic support. That final element distinguishes American higher education from virtually every other system of higher education in the world. IU graduates are the most dedicated and loyal to their alma mater of any that I have encountered in my travels, and their support is one of the key ingredients of our success. The fact that we rely on these four pillars, rather than, say one or two of them, means that American universities can continue to develop and progress even if one or two of those sources are less robust.

What are your priorities in the area of research?

MAM: With all of the attention on the life sciences, it may be easy for some to forget that Indiana University is a liberal arts institution that includes a glorious history of research and creative activity in the arts and humanities and many other areas. To build on that great tradition, one of my central priorities is to strengthen the infrastructure that supports research activities in the arts and humanities.