Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, October 8, 2012

University begins bold new research funding venture MCubed

A revolutionary research funding experiment begins today at U-M, as faculty members from every school and college can start to coalesce into teams of three to embark on visionary projects.

The MCubed program, announced in May, will divvy up $15 million among 250 brand new, interdisciplinary pilot studies. A grassroots endeavor spearheaded by a trio of engineering professors, it empowers researchers themselves — as opposed to funding agencies — to decide which ideas are worth exploring.

All 19 schools and colleges at the university, as well as three other interdisciplinary units, have agreed to participate.

“When we first started, we never thought we would have such a positive response from all over campus,” said Mark Burns, professor and chair of chemical engineering and chair of the MCubed executive committee.

Under MCubed, qualifying researchers receive a token worth $20,000. (In most cases investigators must provide a small portion of that as matching funds). To submit a project for funding, you simply post it on the MCubed website and find two colleagues — at least one from a different discipline — who agree to put their token toward that project.
Funded projects will get $60,000 to hire a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher or undergrad and work can begin. No external reviewers or administrators will evaluate the projects. The review occurs by investigators deciding to spend their one token on that project.

What begins today is the MCubed “interaction phase,” during which faculty can log in to the MCubed website, enter a project idea or browse for interesting ones, and invite collaborators to a project. This phase will continue for several weeks.

“There is no race right now,” said Valerie Johnson, MCubed program administrator. “We will provide plenty of notice before concluding this phase in approximately one month.”

After the interaction phase closes, a cubing phase will begin. That’s when researchers can finalize teams and officially request funding. After that phase closes, within days, funded projects will receive an account number where they can access their money.

“In breakthrough research, speed really matters,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate dean for entrepreneurial programs at the College of Engineering and one of MCubed’s founding faculty members. “In our flat world, the leading researchers in a field all learn about science progress at approximately the same time. The leaders are the ones that can have great ideas and implement them the fastest way possible.”

MCubed, a two-year pilot itself, aims to fund pilot studies that could provide an important base of knowledge that researchers could draw from to apply for larger traditional grants. It is designed to spark the kind of new dialogues that cross boundaries and eventually lead to big breakthroughs.

“Many of the greatest advances in recent decades, ranging from biotechnology to robotics, have arisen from the intersection of disciplines,” said Stephen Forrest, U-M vice president for research. “MCubed explicitly fosters the cooperation among disciplines that is a key driver of innovation.”

MCubed was spearheaded by Burns, Zurbuchen and Alec Gallimore, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Engineering. Funding is provided by the Provost’s Office, the individual schools, colleges and units, and investigators who participate in the program.