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Q&A with Charles Dunlap: Turning Experience into Insight

Charles Dunlap has worked extensively around the globe helping to foster cooperation on topics of common scientific interest, like adapting to climate change. he joined AAAS in 2015 as Director of the Research Competitiveness Program. | Photo by AAAS

Sometimes an outsider’s view comes in handy. Providing perspective and expertise when it does, is where Charles Dunlap and his team come in.

As director of the 20-year-old Research Competitiveness Program, Dunlap is in charge of AAAS efforts to bolster science programs in the United States and abroad. The program advises universities, foundations and other STEM agencies, on building their capabilities, streamlining proposals, and entering grant competitions – or launching their own. It also runs the Tech-I competition in conjunction with the State Department, which connects science and technology entrepreneurs from developing economies to expertise and seed money.

Since getting into the field in the 1990s, Dunlap has worked extensively in the former Soviet republics, the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and North Korea, where he worked in support of science diplomacy to foster cooperation on topics of mutual scientific interest. He’s also run workshop programs that trained over 4,300 researchers in a variety of skills in 20 countries.

Dunlap grew up in New Orleans, earned a Ph.D. in geology/geochemistry from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and joined AAAS in 2015. He talked with MemberCentral about the program, the challenges facing research institutions, and the role of AAAS in helping overcome them.

Q: How did you go from geochemistry to working in research competitiveness?

Dunlap: I did my fieldwork as a geologist outside the U.S., so I had some early experience with researchers in different systems. As a post-doc, I had a chance to teach an environmental science course in Armenia. The American University there was kicked off by Madeleine Albright as a model for the American graduate system in what, at the time, was just becoming a post-Soviet country – I taught there and took the position to direct their environmental research center.

There was a series of opportunities to learn about research outside the U.S., to collaborate and work on institutions abroad. I had received grant funding from a Washington-based foundation that was supporting weapons scientists in the former Soviet countries, and I went to work with that organization, leading up science foundations they had created in four countries. I took over leadership of those four funding agencies, and then built up a number of programs from there.

So I went from work as a professor leading an environmental research center into work at AAAS because I had the experience working on the strategies and setup of a university from the beginning and working with scientists individually in areas such as peer review and capacity building. The challenges that institutions and researchers face are analogous to the kind of work that RCP does.

Q: What are the biggest issues facing the programs you work with -- money? Recruitment? Institutional inertia?

Dunlap: Funding in the sciences in the U.S. has not quite recovered from sequestration several years back. State legislatures in a lot of states have pared back funding for science and universities. If you look at the rise in tuitions for universities around the United States, it’s 80 percent due to the budgetary cuts from state legislatures that support university operations.

There are dozens of ways you could answer that question, and they’d all be reasonable and they’d all miss some aspect of it. Obviously, funding, but that’s going to be an answer anytime you ask anyone. We see a number of issues with institutions that are common—communication and collaboration between team members; science communication and communication of the benefit to the state back to the legislature; tracking of metrics for outcomes for the work in a sense that’s reportable back to the funding agencies. We often think of the number of publications and number of patents as metrics of scientific output, but there are other challenges apart from doing excellent research. The number of post-doctoral positions in U.S. went down for about three years but are now up a little bit.

Q: How has the program evolved?

Dunlap: This is our 20th year. It started with a grant from the National Science Foundation to work on outside advisory and assessment support for big state programs…At the beginning, we took on that challenge and brought in the outside expertise that could be supportive of the project teams. Because we were recruiting that expertise, we realized we could provide the recruitment of reviewers for our states, like Connecticut or Maine, who are running their own competitions. A state agency or affiliated nongovernmental organization typically won’t have the breadth of contacts for reviewers that AAAS would have, be setup to recruit them, and have the policies and procedures in place to oversee the review process. It’s a nice collaboration.

Since I’ve come, RCP has taken on the international Tech-I competition. It’s an element of the GIST [Global Innovation through Science and Technology] program the Department of State runs. We did that last July and then again this June. That’s a bit of a new addition. I had worked on parts of the GIST program before I came to AAAS, so it was a natural transition.

The workshops we’re organizing are based on curricula we develop within AAAS. We also measure impact. We’re really concerned to see that what we do actually produces some sort of measurable benefit for the participants, whether it’s more papers submitted to journals, or more funding applications, or greater success in securing funding. We ran a series of workshops in West and East Africa between February and June for technology entrepreneurs, primarily women. How do you, as someone coming out of a lab and building a small business, find the right folks to help you in developing your networks? Who are the folks who need to be in that network? What are their roles, and what are their different backgrounds and mechanisms of helping you? It’s sort of the soft-skills component of technology entrepreneurship.

What’s the most common bit of advice you give the programs you advise?

Dunlap: The specific advice could vary, depending on what the university is trying to do. The advice I would have is, do what you can to open up and bring in some outside insight that you can digest and apply to your own needs. Not all of it is going to resonate, but that step of opening up and inviting that outside perspective is probably the one thing that could always strengthen what you’re doing, regardless of the specific issues. This is why we have in the U.S. the accreditation process for our universities or specific degree programs. The value of inviting that sort of fresh and neutral and external look at what’s going on can often lead to helpful insights, and it’s almost never as threatening as folks feel it might be.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Dunlap: I enjoy the fact that we can translate the unique experience we have at AAAS into useful insight for a particular person or university or research team. The capacity to share the knowledge in a useful format – not just a data dump, but rather to place it in the context where someone can find it helpful. Whether it’s generating the report that comes out of a site visit assessment, or pulling together the consensus review back to the applicant in the review process or monitoring the integrity of a process so that it’s fair to all the applicants, we really enjoy the ability to be supportive of the STEM research endeavor in the areas we’re active. Many of us ourselves are scientists, and we like to see the success and the impact of what we’re doing.

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<p>Charles Dunlap has worked extensively around the globe helping to foster cooperation on topics of common scientific interest, like adapting to climate change. he joined AAAS in 2015 as Director of the Research Competitiveness Program. | Photo by AAAS</p>
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