Enhancing Research Innovation and Impact through a 'Faculty Springboard'

September 24, 2018

Two-year pilot program to support newly tenured faculty pursuing high-risk, high-reward pathbreaking research ventures

Duke campus aerial shot

With the support of the National Science Foundation, Duke University is launching a new program aimed at encouraging newly minted tenured faculty to pursue pathbreaking research. The two-year pilot program dubbed the “Faculty Springboard” will begin enrolling faculty in science and engineering disciplines campus-wide this fall.

Pratt School Dean Ravi Bellamkonda and senior associate dean George Truskey will co-direct the program along with Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and Dan Kiehart, dean of the Trinity College’s Natural Sciences Division.

“We spend a lot of time mentoring junior faculty through the tenure process, but less attention is given once they actually achieve tenure,” said Truskey. “With tenure comes a new flexibility and base of support, allowing faculty the freedom to take some risks. We want newly tenured faculty to use this opportunity to think more broadly and identify potential avenues of research that they might not have considered.”

“Duke University prides itself on being ‘outrageously ambitious,’” said Bellamkonda. “We’re seeking to create programs that intentionally increase the probability that our research is ambitious in its scope and encourage a culture of faculty pursuing highly innovative and transformative research. This only comes from asking questions and pursuing avenues without fear of failure, which requires faculty allocating their time, money and people to projects that are truly transformative. The ‘Faculty Springboard’ program provides a platform for our newly tenured faculty to make an ‘innovation strategic plan for their research’ immediately in a period that typically kicks off the most productive years of a faculty member’s life.”

Among the first of its kind, the program begins with a workshop focused on community building, networking and brainstorming sessions to help participants reflect on their research trajectory and encourage exploration of bold new research opportunities. Working with colleagues who have already built transformational research enterprises, the faculty will develop an initial innovation plan to accelerate the impact and scope of their work.

Over the next year, participating faculty will attend a conference in a new research area or visit a highly innovative lab. They will also work with a professional coach and mentor to implement their novel research ideas. The program culminates in a second one-day workshop to discuss a set of research ideas they will pursue over the next five years.

“We’re seeking to create programs that intentionally increase the probability that our research is ambitious in its scope and encourage a culture of faculty pursuing highly innovative and transformative research. This only comes from asking questions and pursuing avenues without fear of failure, which requires faculty allocating their time, money and people to projects that are truly transformative. The ‘Faculty Springboard’ program provides a platform for our newly tenured faculty to make an ‘innovation strategic plan for their research’ immediately in a period that typically kicks off the most productive years of a faculty member’s life.” - Ravi Bellamkonda

A series of surveys and evaluations will assess how the program influences the faculty’s immediate post-tenure research efforts. But the real test will come in looking at how the program has affected the faculty’s research trajectories over the longer term.

“Cultivating and nurturing our talent is one of the best investments we can make,” said Ashby, “and we should not stop once a faculty member receives tenure.  Continued support, like the Faculty Springboard Program, will catalyze excellence in original research, promote teaching that stimulates curiosity and critical thinking in the classroom, and encourage faculty as they mentor students to apply knowledge in new ways that will transform society.”

“Most of the existing faculty development programs around the country focus on supporting faculty as they navigate the university and discipline contexts and achieve the typical career milestones,” added Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement at Duke. “The goal of this initiative is more ambitious and we are pleased to partner with the Pratt School and Trinity College to provide all of our STEM faculty with more robust and innovative faculty advancement skills and resources.”

The Faculty Springboard is funded through the NSF Engineering Directorate as part of their EAGER Germination program, which challenges the research community to test exploratory approaches for learning frameworks, platforms, and/or nurturing experiential environments to stimulate germination of transformative research questions that address important societal needs.

“This award focuses on the attainment of tenure as an inflection point,” said Louise Howard, the NSF Program Officer for the award. “This critical juncture could potentially be leveraged to guide newly tenured faculty toward formulating research questions with substantive potential for societal impact.”

The program will focus on faculty members who have received tenure in the past three years in the Natural Sciences Division of Trinity, the Pratt School of Engineering, the Basic Sciences Division of the School of Medicine, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.  The first workshop is planned to start around the end of the 2018 fall semester.