UM’s $150M biosciences initiative to add 30 faculty

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

With its schools of medicine, dentistry, kinesiology, nursing, pharmacy, environment and other disciplines, the University of Michigan is ripe to leverage its breadth of expertise to become a world leader in life science discovery to solve societal problems, President Mark Schlissel said Friday.

That’s why he announced the creation of a vice provost for biological sciences, the hiring of 30 faculty positions and an investment of $150 million over the next five years.

“The goal is to make UM a powerhouse in the biosciences and a global leader in discovery and societal impact,” Schlissel said during a leadership breakfast at the Michigan Union. “The key to future success in leadership is our potential to be more than the sum of our many excellent parts.

“If we can develop a way to invest and collaborate strategically across the broad expanse of disciplines, our potential for discovery, societal impact and outstanding bioscience education would be unmatched.”

Bioscience is a critically important field at UM, accounting for more than half of its research expenditures last year, according to a report last month from an advisory panel commissioned by Schlissel.

According to the report, about $700 million of UM’s total research spending of $1.3 billion in 2014 was attributable to the biosciences.

To head UM’s renewed focus on this area of research, an international search will be launched to find a senior bioscientist who is creative and has leadership experience to fill the new vice provost’s job.

That person will report to UM Provost Martha Pollack and lead a new coordinating committee composed of faculty involved in life sciences and other research, and will work closely with Schlissel, a biomedical researcher and physician.

The advisory panel’s report said UM’s efforts in biosciences are “not at the level of excellence to which we aspire,” and noted that research expenditures in the discipline “have essentially been flat for the past four years.”

The report called for the university to consider “moving into new areas of research, particularly if we identify world-class leaders to recruit to UM.”

The report says in an “ideal future” of biosciences at UM, “we would be a magnet for the very best faculty, post-docs, and students in the world, who would come to UM to work across boundaries, conducting world-class science — science that leads to new diagnoses and treatments for a host of diseases, that alters our understanding of our origins and the evolutionary history and basis of our behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and that advances our knowledge of the myriad species of living organisms.”

The committee, chaired by Pollack and including numerous science, math and medical faculty members, urged the school’s leaders to encourage researchers “to frame and pursue major questions in the biosciences, and to take calculated and thoughtful risks to address them.”

The report also said UM should work “to integrate knowledge across the biosciences” to determine the best ways “to approach big, cross-cutting questions.”

The panel also offered options for restructuring UM departments to boost bioscience work by researchers who now “work in a variety of departments across multiple schools and colleges.”

Ideas include consolidating all of the basic science departments in UM’s medical school into a “mega-department” or creating a virtual school of biosciences to coordinate research done in existing departments on biological diversity, for instance.

The most sweeping concept offered by the panel would be to create a separate school of integrated biosciences or, “more radically” a school of sciences.

The UM president has emphasized beefing up the school’s research efforts since becoming president in July 2014.

Last month, the university unveiled a $100 million Data Science Initiative aimed at harnessing vast amounts of data for research that could solve real-world problems in transportation, medicine, social science and education.

That project calls for hiring 35 new faculty members and providing new educational opportunities for students.