2019 RCP Annual Update
Every year we work with hundreds of experts, including proposal peer reviewers, site visit panelists, and event speakers and moderators. Each of you helps the Research Competitiveness Program to support the AAAS mission of advancing science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world. We compiled this Annual Update to give you a sense of the scope of the work that you’ve contributed to and to let you know some of what we're looking forward to in the coming year.
Peer Review—Building Research Competitiveness Across the STEM Ecosystem
Since 2001, RCP has worked with universities, state and federal agencies, foundations, and other science organizations to build STEM research capacity through peer review. In 2019, we supported peer reviewed grant competitions in seven U.S. states and Saudi Arabia. All peer-review projects were conducted in close collaboration with the funders, allowing us to help build the review model and criteria to best fit each competition’s goals.
Collaborating with the ALS Association to Advance Innovative Research on Lou Gehrig’s Disease
This year we worked for the first time with the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, a non-profit organization leading the fight to build awareness, treat, and cure ALS through global research and nationwide advocacy. We recruited panels of neurology experts to review proposals submitted to three ALSA grant competitions – the Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Starter Program for investigators entering the field of ALS, and the investigator-initiated Multi-year Program Awards. Each of these grants provides funding for scientists pursuing innovative ALS research.
Expanding Cutting Edge Cancer Research Capacity in Washington State
RCP continues to design and manage the peer review systems for two cancer research programs funded through Washington State’s Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment (CARE) Fund. RCP oversaw the review of the third cohort of the Distinguished Researchers Program, which recruits researchers from all over the world to bring best-in-class talent to Washington. We are also managing the review of renewal applications for the inaugural awardees of the Breakthrough Research Program, which funds innovative, cross-disciplinary approaches to cancer research.
Supporting Research in Three States to Succeed in NSF Competitions
In addition to strategic assessment and evaluation for NSF EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Programs, RCP also provides peer review support for research proposals submitted for consideration and funding under EPSCoR grants. For the third year in a row, we provided review of applications to Nebraska EPSCoR’s FIRST Awards program, which supports research competitiveness in Nebraska by helping to prepare early-career, tenure-track faculty in that state to submit proposals to NSF’s CAREER grants program. We also continued our longstanding history of assisting states and higher education institutions align research initiatives with strategic science and technology priorities. This included partnering with NCSU to provide peer review of pre-proposals being developed for potential submission to the NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program, which supports interdisciplinary materials science research, and assisting in the review of pre-proposals being considered for the scientific focus of Vermont's 2020 EPSCoR RII proposal to the NSF.
Providing External Insight on New York State Environmental Reports
One of the responsibilities of the New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is to develop high-quality scientific reports and publications that are available to the public. This year RCP managed the peer review for drafts of two such reports, both of which address energy-related environmental challenges in the state.
Enabling Objective Funding Decisions for National Grant Programs in Saudi Arabia
RCP provided guidance and peer review to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education’s Deputyship of Research and Innovation (DRI) on its initiatives to enhance the research capacity and competitiveness of its academic and scientific workforce. In December 2018, we recruited hundreds of reviewers to review proposals submitted to DRI’s International Collaboration Grant Program. This initiative offers two primary programs – Research Capability Grants and Grand Challenges Grants – which support long-term partnerships with international universities, enabling researchers to work in diverse academic settings that promote a sustainable and collaborative R&D culture across disciplines. RCP is also working with DRI to manage proposal reviews for their new Technology Transfer Office (TTO) initiative, which will provide annual grants to establish or enhance TTOs at Saudi universities.
Evaluation and Assessment to Support STEM Programs
A New Model in 2019 for External Evaluation and Assessment Support
A generalized approach to quantitative evaluation or strategic assessment can fail to meet the needs of STEM projects and institutions. The scientists working in AAAS’s Research Competitiveness Program have been designing and leading evaluation and assessment responsive to research projects and university STEM strategy for the past twenty-three years. In 2019 we expanded our work in STEM program evaluation serving as external evaluators and designing logic models for proposals under development with the insight and shared goals of a scientific perspective. We also combined our work as external evaluators with our work recruiting and leading expert panels to provide collegial, peer-to-peer strategic insight to projects: both formative and summative assessments. This new integrated approach maintains separation between the External Evaluator collecting and analyzing project data and the Strategic Assessment panel that may use that data as part of its independent work via on-site, face-to-face meetings with the project team. This new integrated approach was incorporated into several proposals that we joined this year, and we expect to report on the work next year after projects launch in 2020.
Three Strategic Assessments by Expert Panels for NSF EPSCoR Projects
Three of our Strategic Assessments in 2019 focused on supporting projects to achieve their research goals and broader impacts.
The Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network (SEANET) project is funded by a five-year NSF EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track 1 award and led by the University of Maine. SEANET’s goal is to develop a transdisciplinary understanding of how social-environmental systems interact with sustainable ecological aquaculture in coastal communities and ecosystems. RCP conducted a summative assessment of the project, which included suggestions for the sustainability of the innovative work established over the last four years.
RCP also provided a summative assessment of The Future of Dams Project, a cross-jurisdictional collaborative developed by the New England Sustainability Consortium to leverage capacities developed in New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island via a $6 million RII Track 2 grant and other funding mechanisms.
Finally, RCP conducted a formative assessment this fall for the RII Track 2 Genomic Ecology of Coastal Organisms (GECO) program, which is at the start of its four-year award. This collaboration between the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine aims to develop a research and training program that will advance the understanding of the genetic basis of organismal adaptation in response to environmental changes.
Evaluating the strength of state-wide biomedical research networks in four states
Currently in its fourth renewal and 18th year of funding, Mississippi INBRE aims to strengthen the state’s biomedical research workforce, with a scientific focus in the areas of obesity, cancer, and sexually transmitted diseases. The RCP review panel embarked on a 500-mile road trip across the state, visiting multiple institutions, and provided a formative assessment that focused on working with newly hired primarily undergraduate institution faculty in their efforts toward research independence.
Maine INBRE has also recently renewed its award, and invited RCP to conduct a formative assessment to review new program elements and provide strategic recommendations on developing the network’s infrastructure in comparative genomics research and expanding its offerings to student researchers and investigators in need of research training.
Now in the fourth year of its second five-year award, New Hampshire INBRE invited RCP to conduct a summative external assessment focusing on the design and outcomes of initiatives implemented since the most recent review two years ago.
Oklahoma INBRE is in the first year of its fourth five-year award and has asked RCP to complete an assessment for each year of the award, building on our history of providing yearly site visits since 2003. During our recent site visit, the RCP panel visited three institutions in different regions, meeting with administrators, faculty, and staff, and then met with representatives from a fourth in Oklahoma City. RCP has truly enjoyed working with programs that engage, train, and build a diverse and inclusive STEM workforce, and endeavors to continue in this vein in 2020 and beyond.
Strengthening Bahrain’s STEM research ecosystem
RCP collaborated with the Bahrain Higher Education Council to support the development of research governance and entrepreneurship strategy among 16 colleges and universities in Bahrain. Together with an internationally respected expert in technology transfer and innovation, RCP program leaders gave a half-day seminar on these topics for research and administrative leaders of a diverse suite of public and private higher education institutions in Bahrain. Following the seminar, the AAAS panel spent 4 days meeting with representatives from each institution to gather information and discuss perspectives on research resources, focus, and institutional goals. The insights from these meetings augmented the AAAS panel’s analysis of self-reported data, and informed the development of individualized recommendations for each institution designed to assist with strengthening governance structure, policies and procedures, and innovation strategy.
Convening experts to share insights on indoor chemistry
With a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, RCP selected and convened experts in a Congressional briefing and a day-long symposium at the AAAS Headquarters on the emerging field of indoor chemistry, which examines how chemicals from materials, personal products, and more react indoors. At the briefing, attended by more than 30 representatives of Congressional offices, four scientists highlighted research indicating critical human health and environmental impacts and potential policy implications. The following day, RCP hosted a focused symposium in which 14 experts in various aspects of indoor chemistry presented their research in topics such as chemical exposure causes and rates, thirdhand smoke, decontamination, environmental impacts, and material solutions to an invited audience of stakeholders from 55 government agencies, professional building, health, and chemistry associations, industry, and non-profits working in areas such as human health and the built environment. The Sloan Foundation’s goals for this project were similar to those of the 2014 symposium on Microbiomes of the Built Environment (MoBE) funded by Sloan and convened by RCP: to build research capacity by promoting discussion and building contacts.
Collaboration on an NSF-commissioned study on Academic Research Competitiveness
RCP has continued to collaborate on an NSF-commissioned study of academic research excellence and competitiveness that aims to establish an analytic framework for assessing the success of complex, multi-institutional, multi-jurisdictional programs involving multi-disciplinary STEM research. AAAS RCP coordinated the external working group providing feedback on the draft report and provided insight from it work on Strategic Assessment and Evaluation with hundreds of institutions working on NSF-funded projects over the last twenty-three years.
Enhancing the Rigor of Technology Investment in the US and Abroad
In 2019, RCP has built capacity for technology innovators and entrepreneurs by leading an international technology entrepreneurship competition and continuing to recruit experts to evaluate applications to state-based economic development grants.
Over a Decade of Partnership with Maine and Connecticut
For over a decade, RCP has designed and managed evaluations of technical applications for state innovation funds. This year, we managed the evaluation of applications to the Maine Technology Institute’s Maine Funding Program, which awards funding to Maine companies developing technologies in priority sectors with the goal of boosting economic development and job creation, and the Maine Small Campus Initiative, which provides applied research and development funding for researchers at the five smaller campuses of the University of Maine system. We also designed a comprehensive scientific and technical merit review process for the Connecticut Biosciences Innovation Fund (CBIF), which aims to further commercialization of bioscience breakthroughs coming out of Connecticut.
A Panel Discussion on Bringing Scientific Peer review to State Technology Investment Funds
Drawing on years of experience with MTI, CBIF, and other U.S. state-based funding organizations, RCP organized a panel discussion at the SSTI (State Science and Technology Institute) meeting in December 2018. The panel focused on the application of the scientific review process to state innovation investment applications, including considerations in designing and customizing review processes for different funding mechanisms. Joining us on the panel were colleagues from PolarityTE and the Maine Technology Institute.
Building Early-career Capacity for Tech Startups Around the World
Once again, RCP implemented the U.S. Department of State’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition, which provides capacity building for young entrepreneurs from emerging economies. 541 young entrepreneurs submitted pitch videos and written descriptions of their ideas and startups to the 2019 competition. RCP recruited over 100 reviewers with expertise in innovation and entrepreneurship and one of the broad scientific areas of the applications and managed the merit review process.
Reviewers scored applications based on their scientific merit, business model, and innovation and provided written feedback for applicants. 80 of the best-reviewed applications advanced to the five-week public voting round, during which over 120,000 votes were cast from all over the world. The top 24 vote-getters, representing 18 emerging economies, advanced to the Tech-I finals.
RCP accompanied the finalists to the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Manama, Bahrain in April 2019. Finalists received two days of intensive training with mentors recruited by RCP and then presented their ideas and startups in a live pitch competition before a panel of judges. The judges awarded first place to Donatus Njoroge of Kenya, a chemist who developed a novel bio pesticide dispersed by an organic slow-release capsule. In all, more than $200,000 in seed funding and Amazon Web Services credit was awarded to the prize winners. Following the finals, each finalist received three months of mentorship.
Training the Future Researchers and Entrepreneurs of the Global STEM Workforce
RCP endeavors to build STEM ecosystems by offering capacity-building support in various areas, including designing and implementing external grant competitions, overseeing the peer-review of funding proposals, and evaluating and providing strategic advice to academic institutions and organizations on STEM initiatives. RCP’s 20+ years of this work have given our program a valuable base of evidence and insights from which to develop short courses and trainings for research and professional development, tailored for audiences that range from students and researchers in academia to entrepreneurs in the technology sector. This year, RCP ran a workshop at the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference to address gaps in the STEM career pathway, led a short course series on Research Ethics for early career researchers in Saudi Arabia, conducted a seminar on university governance for Bahraini university leadership, and facilitated professional training for emerging entrepreneurs.
Preparing underrepresented student researchers for STEM careers
The annual Emerging Researcher National (ERN) Conference in STEM aims to help undergraduate and graduate students, including those from underrepresented groups, and their institutions prepare for science careers in a global workforce. Based on data and observations from RCP’s strategic assessment work, we designed a workshop to develop strategies for broadening participation and student preparedness for STEM careers, mentorship, and institutionalizing support for undergraduate research. During the workshop, faculty, program administrators, and students joined together to analyze strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to promoting undergraduate research at their institutions. This knowledge sharing built the basis for bringing new strategies back to their colleges and universities.
Developing research ethics infrastructure in Saudi Arabia
RCP led a series of four, two-day short courses for university researchers on Research Ethics for International Collaboration in December 2018 in Riyadh and Jeddah and in March 2019 in Tabuk and Abha. The curriculum was competency-based and included hands-on exercises and group work to reinforce concepts critical to ethical research standards and practice, including issues related to research misconduct, authorship, conflict of interest, and mentoring. The courses were tailored for an audience of postdoctoral scientists, early-career faculty, and departmental and ethics committee leaders. In total, more than 180 researchers and academic leaders from Saudi Arabia’s 26 universities participated in the course series. The courses were sponsored by the Deputyship of Research and Innovation (DRI, formerly the Research and Development Office) of the Ministry of Education. Long-term impacts are still being measured, but according to preliminary data, 78% of respondents updated policies following the course and 67% of respondents provided training to an average of four other students and colleagues.
Supporting research capacity and knowledge transfer in Bahrain’s Higher Education Institutions
In June, RCP led a half-day seminar on university governance for leaders of Bahrain’s higher education institutions. Attendees learned about strategies to strengthen research outcomes, university knowledge transfer, and the design and use of logic models for strategic planning and measuring institutional impacts. The AAAS panel of experts also met with representatives from each higher education institution to provide guidance on improvements to each university’s research governance and entrepreneurship strategy. These activities were supported and coordinated by the Ministry of Education’s Higher Education Council as part of RCP’s broader efforts to support building research capacity in the country.
Training for young entrepreneurs from emerging economies
RCP implemented the 2019 round of the U.S. State Department’s GIST Tech-I Competition for entrepreneurs and innovators from emerging economies around the globe. At the finals, which took place at the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Manama, Bahrain, RCP hosted a two-day training for the 24 finalists led by entrepreneurship and commercialization experts. The training equipped finalists with skills they will need to advance their ideas or startup company, including pitching strategies, developing a business plan, defining a business identity, analyzing the market, and differentiating from competition. RCP recruited technology industry mentors who met individually with Finalists to help them refine their pitches and network at the conference. Finalists were then matched with mentors who committed to three months of post-competition guidance as each entrepreneur continued to develop their innovations and business endeavors.