Prairie Research Institute and The Grainger College of Engineering establish a joint initiative on sustainability engineering

By Tiffany Jolley (Prairie Research Institute) and Kim Gudeman (Grainger College of Engineering)

The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) and The Grainger College of Engineering are embarking on a new partnership to create a Joint Initiative on Sustainability Engineering beginning in Spring 2023. This collaboration will further the University of Illinois’ reputation as a nexus of engineering and science that fosters novel solutions for societal challenges, and will broadly include aspects of engineering, energy, health, and sustainability research.

“This partnership will open up new opportunities for research development on our campus and allow scientists from PRI and faculty from the GCOE to work together to find innovative solutions for important societal challenges. Students and postdoctoral researchers will greatly benefit from combining basic research with real-world problems,” said Praveen Kumar, Executive Director of PRI.

Together, PRI and Grainger Engineering aim to encompass joint research and development activity, sponsored funding, private sector partnerships, workforce development and training, and service to the State of Illinois and beyond. This partnership is expected to lead to growth in funding opportunities, and to support successful faculty, research staff, and student recruitment. 

“To make significant advancements in some of the most important challenges of our time, it will take a collaboration of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers working together to solve systems-level problems,” said Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir. “We are proud to partner with our colleagues across the university as we together pursue science that transforms our health and our world.”

PRI scientists and Grainger Engineering faculty who are doing research in the areas of engineering, energy, health, and sustainability, will jointly advise and mentor engineering graduate students and postdocs. Collaborating PRI scientists and Grainger Engineering faculty will serve as co-advisors of thesis/dissertation and research.

To achieve these goals, PRI and Grainger Engineering will work to create collaborative opportunities through shared research environments and facilities and jointly secure resources to enhance their national and international research and educational reputation, and share their successful collaborations.

This story first appeared on the PRI News Blog. Read the original story.

The decline of ‘disruptive’ science

Read the full story at Inside Higher Ed.

Isaac Newton wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in a 1675, saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Centuries later, it remains generally understood that innovation builds on past science. So in this era of unprecedented research volume, breakthroughs should be increasingly common, right? Wrong, according to a new study finding that “disruptive” science is on the decline.

This trend downward “represents a substantive shift in science and technology, one that reinforces concerns about slowing innovative activity,” says the analysis, published this month in Nature.

Finding that the decline likely isn’t driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors, the authors attribute this shift “in part to scientists’ and inventors’ reliance on a narrower set of existing knowledge.”

‘Disruptive’ science has declined — and no one knows why

Read the full story in Nature.

The proportion of publications that send a field in a new direction has plummeted over the past half-century.

Why we need open-source science innovation — not patents and paywalls

A virology lab researcher works to develop a test that will detect the P.1 variant of the coronavirus, in São Paulo, Brazil, in March 2021. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

by Joshua M. Pearce, Western University

As we prepare to invest money to prevent the next global pandemic and find solutions to many other problems, science funders have a large opportunity to move towards open science and more research collaboration by offering open-source endowed chairs.

In these research positions, professors agree to ensure all of their writing is distributed via open access — and they release all of their intellectual property in the public domain or under appropriate open-source licences.

The global scholarly publishing market has grown steadily and is now worth over US$28 billion. Researchers estimate universities are also able to capture billions through patent licensing, although most technology transfer offices at universities actually lose money.

But many academics want to see their research fully accessible — free for everyone. My research with colleagues has found the majority of American and Canadian academics want to see universities establish open-source endowed chairs.

How academics use intellectual property

Intellectual property (IP) refers to mind creations like patents and copyrights. Academics use all kind of IP. For example, professors publish their work as articles in peer-reviewed journals, the majority of which are under copyright.

If you have ever tried to read an academic paper, you probably couldn’t. Most academic papers are behind paywalls.

A red journal seen tipping off a shelf.
Most academic papers are behind paywalls. (Shutterstock)

To gain access through the paywalls costs an enormous amount of money for a library (even Harvard’s library balked at having to pay more than US$1 million per year to access articles from a single publisher).

At the beginning of the pandemic, when fast innovation was needed, most major publishers made their COVID-19 collections “open access,” which means everyone could read them for free. They did this to speed up innovation because it is obvious that paywalls slow science.

Accessible research in science matters because the more scientists that can read the relevant literature, the more scientists can help push innovations forward and the faster we are able to find solutions.

The open access movement is growing quickly. Authors must pay to make their work available in some open-access journals. Now, however, there are many respected peer-reviewed open-access journals that are free to publish in and free to read.

Patents hamper innovation

Many universities brag about the number of patents their professors write. Patents are supposed to encourage innovation because they give the inventor a 20-year monopoly to profit from an invention and this provides a financial incentive.

The basic idea is a professor would patent an invention that could be mass manufactured and then reap licence revenue for 20 years.

This does happen. However, a tidal wave of academic study after study, have shown that patents actively hamper innovation.

This is because most innovation builds on other ideas and there is no “fair use” for patents.

It is illegal to even experiment on a patented idea without a licence. If you need to wait 20 years to build on a good idea, it obviously takes a lot of time to innovate. Historically innovation moved rather slowly, now the rate of innovation is fast. Consider now how ancient a 20-year-old phone would be in your pocket.

Some academics like science and engineering professors do make money on patents for their universities. But the patent revenue they keep tends to be meager, because the costs to get the patent must first be recovered before the inventors get anything.

People stand next to fake coffins with signs that say 'drop the patents.'
Advocacy to drop patents grew in the pandemic, seen in the work of global justice campaigners standing by fake coffins to highlight COVID-19 deaths globally, in October 2021, in London. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Open source is a better way

Open source is the answer to speeding up innovation. Open source originally was developed in the software industry as inventors would share the source code of computer programs to innovate faster.

Open source works amazingly well because having a lot of people work on a problem together tends to get a much better solution than a few.

Today open source is dominant in all supercomputers, 90 per cent of cloud servers, 82 per cent of smartphones and most artificial intelligence. Ninety per cent of the Fortune Global 500 use open-source software.

Study on university professors

The results of a survey study of university professors in Canada found 81.1 per cent of Canadian faculty would trade all IP for an open-source endowed chair and 34.4 per cent of these faculty would require no additional compensation. Surprisingly, even more American faculty (86.7 per cent) are willing to accept an open-source endowed professorship.

In both these studies, we presented participants with information about open-source endowed professorships to provide context and clarity for the subsequent multiple-choice and open-ended questions.

We looked at professors in every stage of their career (assistant to emeritus), tenured and non-tenured, at all types of universities (colleges to institutions with very high research activity), and in all disciplines including professional programs.

We analyzed results for three core disciplines of engineering/technology, natural sciences and social sciences to assess if there are differences in preferred compensation types among scholars of various disciplines.

The will to share was robust across all variables. Professors as a whole would be willing to make all of their IP freely available in exchange for the open-source endowed chair.

Accelerating innovation

I currently hold the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, and am one of the first endowed chairs to make an open-source commitment.

It is clear, even from my own work that has been sped along by many others freely contributing to my open-source projects, that science will move faster with open-source methods.

There is a clear willingness of academics to leave behind antiquated IP models for the good of science and society. It is time to provide incentives to accelerate innovation using open science to hasten scientific progress while also making science more just and inclusive.

All research funders — governments, foundations, private companies, donors and universities — should start funding open-source endowed chairs to maximize the impact of their resources.

Joshua M. Pearce, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Confidence in research: researchers in the spotlight

Download the report.

Informed by a literature review, a global survey, expert interviews and roundtable discussions, the main research objectives are:

  1. Evaluate researchers’ perceptions of the impact of the pandemic on the production and communication of research;
  2. Assess whether and how researchers have changed their behaviour as a result of the pandemic;
  3. Identify gaps in researchers’ confidence in the production and communication of research;
  4. Identify interventions that will help researchers effectively bolster both scientific practice and confidence in research.

National Energy Technology Lab’s director: Catalyzing the clean energy pivot

Read the full story from the Wall Street Journal.

Brian Anderson discusses how the Department of Energy national laboratory is driving technology innovations critical to the low-carbon future

Federal Research and Development: Funding Has Grown Since 2012 and Is Concentrated Within a Few Agencies

Download the report.

What GAO Found

Federal research and development (R&D) funding has increased since 2012—most recently because of COVID-19 stimulus funding. Five agencies obligated the majority of federal R&D funding with the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) accounting for nearly 80 percent in fiscal year 2021 (see figure). HHS has mainly funded research, while DOD mainly funds development. However, HHS has become a major funder of development in recent years because of COVID-19 stimulus funding. HHS averaged less than 1 percent in development funding through fiscal year 2019 but reported 37 percent of its R&D obligations were for development in fiscal year 2021. Of the estimated $179.5 billion in federal R&D obligations in fiscal year 2021, about two-thirds went to organizations outside the federal government. In fiscal year 2021, industry, universities, and colleges received the majority of these external R&D obligations—almost $90 billion.

Federal Research and Development Obligations, Fiscal Year 2021

Federal Research and Development Obligations, Fiscal Year 2021
Note: FY 2021 data are estimates provided by federal agencies to the National Science Foundation.

Federal funding also includes four multi-agency initiatives in areas identified as having long-term national importance, such as quantum information science and nanotechnology. These initiatives coordinate activities in areas that are too broad or complex to be addressed by one agency alone. For example, more than 60 agencies participate in an initiative on network and information technology, which includes investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Not all participating agencies contribute funding to such initiatives. Funding for these initiatives increased over the previous decade, and accounted for roughly $14 billion in fiscal year 2020, just under 9 percent of the total federal R&D budget.

Why GAO Did This Study

Scientific and technological innovation are critical to long-term U.S. economic competitiveness, prosperity, and national security. The U.S. has long been a global leader in advancing the frontiers of science and technology. Increased competition from other countries has led some experts to express concern that the U.S. may be losing its competitive edge in certain technologies. Agencies are investing in various R&D initiatives, including those that are of strategic national importance, such as network and information technology, nanotechnology, quantum information science, and global environmental changes.

This report describes (1) trends in federal R&D funding over the last 10 years and (2) the funding and organization for selected multi-agency R&D initiatives, among other objectives.

To address these objectives, GAO analyzed data published by the National Science Foundation on annual R&D expenditures and examined Office of Management and Budget (OMB) data. GAO also reviewed agency documentation and collected written responses to structured questions on federal R&D from the Chief Financial Officer or budget office from the five agencies that fund most R&D.

In addition, GAO interviewed officials from OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, including the Directors of the National Coordination Offices for selected multi-agency R&D initiatives, which are coordinated under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council.

For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or wrightc@gao.gov.

How the Amelia Earhart mystery may inform microplastics research

Read the full story from Penn State University.

The aluminum panel is dull, corroded and covered in a patina of scratches from tumbling around the Pacific Ocean, likely for decades, before washing up on the small atoll of Nikumaroro. Parallel rivet lines puncture the panel, similar to the ones that dotted the Lockheed Electra Amelia Earhart flew on her ill-fated round-the-world trip in 1937, but they’re not a precise match. It is possible that the panel was a retrofit — a patch to replace a rear window — but with only 85-year-old photos to compare, the theory is difficult to investigate beyond reference measurements. 

But it’s not impossible, especially with neutron radiography. The non-destructive imaging technique can peer beyond the veneer of age and damage to spy the tiniest of clues. It can also ferret out mere hints of contaminants, including pervasive pollutants. 

Tracking wildfire smoke: EPA researchers make better maps with drones

Read the full story from U.S. EPA.

Wildfires cause dangerous flames, inescapable gray soot, and clouds of smoke that can travel hundreds of miles. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from everything burned by fire, including vegetation, buildings, and other materials. Breathing it in can cause coughing, trouble breathing normally, stinging eyes, and a scratchy throat – or worse. To help protect communities affected by wildfire smoke, EPA researchers take air quality measurements to better understand the chemistry of smoke and improve models used to predict where smoke from wildland fires will travel. Being in the path of the smoke plume is dangerous for everyone – including firefighters and the scientists who study the effects and spread of wildfire smoke.

Airplanes and helicopters are often used to track fires, but they’re costly and can’t fly in poor conditions. Flying over huge forest fires is also risky for the pilots and crew.

That’s where using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) can help. A UAS can fly without having a person present in or on the device. Also known as drones, they are an emerging research tool that may provide a safer, more cost-effective, and more comprehensive approach than traditional, ground-based research methods. Drones can be equipped with cameras and sensors and zip through spots that helicopters can’t safely access.

EPA researchers have developed an air emission sensor and sampling instrument to use on a UAS and in other applications. The shoebox-sized equipment is called the Kolibri, which means “hummingbird” in several languages. It’s a lightweight system that weighs up to eight pounds and can record and send data in real time.

Strategic Research Action Plans Fiscal Years 2023-2026

Research in EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) provides solutions needed to meet today’s complex environmental and human health challenges. Research is organized around six highly integrated and transdisciplinary national research programs that are closely aligned with the Agency’s strategic goals and cross-Agency strategies. Each program is guided by a Strategic Research Action Plan (StRAP) developed by EPA with input from its many internal and external partners and stakeholders.

Read each program’s StRAP