Steven Fluharty, vice provost for research, envisions Penn’s mammoth $780 million research enterprise as a building held up by four strong pillars.
These pillars are four of the tenets of his job: Overseeing the research infrastructure, ensuring compliance, moving discoveries into the marketplace and working with each of Penn’s 12 schools so the University as a whole is positioned to be a major contributor to emerging fields such as nanotechnology, neuroscience and bioinformatics.
Fluharty sees himself as a facilitator—someone who promotes interdisciplinary research and encourages researchers from across all of the schools to collaborate. “I don’t mean to imply that the Provost or the Vice Provost needs to do this or it wouldn’t happen,” Fluharty says. “The reality is, the faculty themselves and the schools recognize that this is the distinguishing strength of Penn. What we really are is more of a facilitator, although we do identify opportunities that might not get noticed by an individual school.”
Fluharty, who received all three of his degrees from Penn—a B.A. in psychology in 1979, an M.A. in psychobiology in 1979 and a Ph.D. in psychobiology in 1981—was appointed associate vice provost for research in October 2005 and moved into his new position in November 2006.
He previously served on the faculty of the Vet School and also directed Penn’s Biological Basis of Behavior program from 1994 until 2005—a program he calls a “poster child” for interdisciplinary education and research.
Q. You’ve held appointments in the Vet School, Med School and SAS. How has your interdisciplinary work informed your work as Vice Provost?
A. Very, very significantly. I have thrived in a Penn’s interdisciplinary environment. When President Gutmann arrived and articulated Penn Integrates Knowledge, followed by the arrival of Provost Daniels and his strong committment to her agenda, for many of us, that crystallized what we’ve been doing. It said that the most senior leadership at the university recognizes that Penn, in some way, is unique because all 12 schools are located on this relatively compact campus. And that physical proximity affords opportunities for collaborations that do not exist, arguably, at any peer institution.
I think because I had been an undergraduate here, I knew a lot about other departments and I immediately began to develop strong ties with the neuroscience community, which in itself is very interdisciplinary.
Q. Is there an overarching goal for the University, research-wise?
A. To quote the President, it’s to go from excellence to eminence. We are very strong in certain areas, but we have the opportunity to be even stronger in the life sciences, in the natural sciences, in the physical sciences, in the social sciences and humanities. We have wonderful opportunities to receive support for some of our outstanding programs. And some of our schools do it extremely well. One of the things that we want to make certain we always do, is when we build something because we believe in it and we believe in the value that it adds to the university, that we are also mindful of how we sustain it.
We are looking very closely and broadly at how we will increase our global engagement. The research community for years has operated on a global stage and I think that in many areas of research, Penn will achieve some key footholds around the world.
Q. In what disciplines?
A. There’s a lot of discussion within the Provost’s office about those research areas—life science initiatives, or biomedical—where developing countries need the support and expertise of a place like the University of Pennsylvania to achieve their objectives as a host nation. The opportunities for engagement are going to also be in areas other than public health and could encompass education and literacy, arts and culture.
Q. Aside from the obvious benefits, why is it important for Penn to be ranked among the top universities in the amount of research funding received?
A. Success breeds success. We are second in NIH funding and that sends a very clear message to the National Institutes of Health that Penn is committed to excellence in biomedical research.
But it also is important in other ways. It increases our ability to recruit faculty who look and see that Penn is consistently ranked as second in NIH funding, third in total funding for science and engineering from all central sources. So now you’re talking about NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Centers for Disease Control. What it says to the young scholars and scientists is Penn’s got its act together. This is a place where you really have the infrastructure, have the support and have the colleagues to do well yourself.
We are able to say to donors, “Here’s our track record, and here’s evidence of the commitment we’ve made as a University.” The fundraising we receive this way translates right into strategic research projects, programs and buildings that are recipients of new funding opportunities.
I don’t want to create the misconception that it’s so important that [being number] two matters and five is a drop. The fact of the matter is, after Johns Hopkins, which is No. 1 in NIH funding for obvious reasons, the positions two through seven are pretty close. But to be there is an important point, to say, “We are part of the most elite institutions.”
Q. NIH funding has been flat recently. How has Penn dealt with that?
A. We are presently looking to diversify. We’re constantly looking at opportunities that emerge from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. We do very well with foundations, but there is room for us to continue to do better with some of the new foundations in the areas of research. There’s the opportunity for corporate support. In contrast to foundations, we underperform in terms of corporate support for research, and a number of schools are increasing their efforts, most notably Medicine, Engineering and Veterinary Medicine. I look at the pie chart that is carving up where our support comes from. On one hand, I’m ecstatic to be able to get up in front of anybody and say that Penn receives $500 million a year from the National Institutes of Health—over 60 percent of our research portfolio. On the other hand, as an investor, if I looked at that, I’d say, this is not diverse enough. You want your portfolio to minimize the risk. We want our numbers to be as high as they can for NIH and we do everything we can, but we also want our numbers to be high everywhere else as well.
Q. What’s behind the success of Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer, and what are your goals for CTT?
A. There’s lots of ways to measure the impact of tech transfer. We developed a tech transfer operation at about the time that many other universities did, when the federal government passed the Baye-Dole Act that said if you accept federal monies to support research, you accept the responsibility and obligation to seek to commercialize those for public good. In the early ’80s, when that legislation was enacted, universities that had never done tech transfer were scrambling to put together the infrastructures.
[It matters] how well staffed your office is—what is the size of it, how many years’ experience does your technology licensing officer have? Where you are as a university matters enormously. The Philadelphia region is very rich in terms of pharmaceutical companies. This is a great place to be. Obviously, it’s very different to have a great university like Penn sit in urban Philadelphia than it would be to have a great university like Penn sit elsewhere. Also, how well-funded are you? That’s what’s going to support those early discoveries that lead ultimately to the inventions, the devices.
There’s also the issue of how well do you create start-up companies and do you have in place the infrastructure to house those start-up companies? We do really well in some areas. If you ask the question, how do we do in terms of commercialization—both licensing, royalties and sponsor research agreements—the number looks big, but when you put it in perspective, it’s not. We’re actually underperforming. It matters less what your actual profits are from commercialization and more what they ought to be based on where you sit, what you have in terms of infrastructure and the enormous talent of your faculty and there, unequivocally, we’re underperforming.
Q. Do you have the time to do your research?
A. I do still have my lab. It’s very hard for me to have the time for the research that I once had, that’s clear. When I agreed to do this for the Provost and for the University, I recognized that this had to be my No. 1 priority.
What’s happened is a transition where I took tremendous satisfaction in the accomplishments of my laboratory and now take tremendous satisfaction in being part of the success of the University research enterprise as a whole.
I didn’t know what to expect when I assumed my current post,= and I discovered that I have a passion for the job and I take great joy in seeing the University succeed. That makes the loss of my own successes in the laboratory and in the research environment much easier.
I still do try to carve out time for the lab. We’re still publishing, we still collaborate, we still have NIH support, but I could not maintain that connection to my research without the people that are in my lab.
Originally published Sept. 20, 2007.
Originally published on September 20, 2007