Skip to main content

Jacob Levin brings in the research money

AAAS Fellow Jacob E. Levin successfully made the shift from MIT research scientist to research development professional. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)

Picture this: You're a research scientist in neurobiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You've got a platinum-plated resume going back to National Merit Scholar at age 15. You're running a million-dollar grant program. So what do you do next? You walk away from research as a lifetime pursuit. At least, that's what AAAS Fellow Jacob E. Levin did, and he hasn't looked back.

As assistant vice chancellor for research development at the University of California at Irvine, he is helping the institution's scientists bring in $30-$60 million in grants per year. Further, he has earned acclaim as an early promoter of research development as a worthwhile career in academia. A few years ago, he helped found the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP), a resource for research support development at universities.

In the decades since Sputnik, the process of ginning up money for scientific research has, in itself, become a science. Levin's focus is to help scientists handle that part of the job better.

"I was flabbergasted when I saw how much easier it was during Sputnik," he says. "The biggest problem is, there are more scientists. The amount of money available per cost of doing research is significantly less."

In the years after Sputnik, more than 40 percent of grant proposals were approved by National Institutes of Health. Now, Levin says, that number is less than 15 percent.

Also, in Levin's view, the complexity of the application process can kill good science rather than promote it.

"The best work is not necessarily getting done," Levin says. "Things don't get funded for trivial reasons."

Those reasons include things like the lack of an adequate data management plan, a weak community engagement component and failure to show the ability to secure lab space, even in large institutions with a surplus of space. Levin's job includes guiding scientists through those trivia.

"It's sitting down with people to talk about their project and help them sell it," he says. "People don't like the idea of chasing the money, but it's a reality that you can only primarily work on activities that you get funded for."

For Levin, the shift from MIT research scientist to research development professional occurred slowly and naturally. At MIT in the 1990s, the affable young scientist often found himself giving tours to donors. He also had a wife and small children, and in order to get health insurance, he had to write a proposal to DARPA for a grant that would allow the expense for insurance, which is considered overhead.

He also found, during that time, that he was comfortable with the writing. And there was one other thing: Although his research tracking the activity in the brain cells of rats during learning tasks was interesting, he didn't have the inclination to become obsessed with a single question for a lifetime -- an inclination that is singular to successful scientists.

Further, at MIT, he was working in a talent mill that was larger than life. "Every single student was capable of exceeding my expectations," he says. "Three of my students had perfect SATs. You can't stand out by being smart or hard-working."

Despite the million-dollar grant and the health insurance, it was still hard to make ends meet in Boston. So he did side jobs, such as building the website for MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Science.

"I realized that more and more of my time was spent doing these other things," he says.

Eventually, he moved from Boston to Irvine for family reasons. He met with the dean of UCI's School of Biology Sciences, Sue Bryant, and discussed a role for him at the university. He described his emerging role at MIT in research support.

"I said, 'Is there anything like that at Irvine?' She said, 'No, but we've been talking about it, and we need it.' "

The university already had staff who helped with grants, but Levin knew what it was like to work in a lab and to sweat through the grant process. His first role at UCI, in 2004, was to help establish the interdisciplinary center in systems biology.

In 2011, he became president of NORDP. It had formed in 2009 as an e-mail group, and 32 people attended its first annual meeting. Now, there are more than 500 members.

At UCI, Levin's office, now with a staff of nine people, has contributed to the development of hundreds of grants, including money for the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, a $66 million building that needed $40 million in grants to build.

One of the biggest testaments to his success is that in the midst of California's public finance crisis, his office has grown.

"My office has been preserved," he says. "It has grown in that time, because we bring in money."

Representative Image Caption
AAAS Fellow Jacob E. Levin successfully made the shift from MIT research scientist to research development professional. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)
Blog Name