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Vice chancellor revamping UCD’s Office of Research

Harris Lewin, UC Davis' vice chancellor of research speaks at the Campaign/CAAA event in San Jose. Lewin is looking forward to leading the research enterprise of UCD into the future. Karin Higgins/UC Davis Courtesy photo

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From page C4 | September 20, 2011 |

Special to The Enterprise

Harris Lewin arrived at UC Davis at the end of March, charged by Chancellor Linda Katehi with reforming the Office of Research and taking the campus’s research enterprise to $1 billion in annual funding.

Lewin earned his doctorate in immunology from UC Davis in 1984, then spent the next 27 years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he ultimately founded and directed the Institute for Genomic Biology.

The UCD news publication Dateline recently talked with the vice chancellor about the Office of Research and his return to the campus:

Welcome back to campus.

(Harris Lewin): Thank you. I’ve had a wonderful return and a very warm welcome.

What changes are you implementing in the Office of Research?

Firstly we are restructuring the top administrative level of the office, removing middle management and adding resources at the analyst level.

We are recruiting three new positions that will report directly to me: an executive associate vice chancellor for research administration, overseeing sponsored programs, research compliance and integrity, and the “business” side of running the research enterprise; associate vice chancellor for technology management and corporate relations, who will oversee the InnovationAccess unit (including technology transfer services); and an associate vice chancellor for interdisciplinary research and strategic initiatives, who will oversee the organized research units and other interdisciplinary research programs. That person will also be traveling to Washington D.C. to make sure that we are aligned with national and state goals in research and competing for big grants and initiatives.

(Lewin announced in a July 29 e-mail that he had appointed Cindy Kiel of Washington University of St. Louis as executive associate vice chancellor for Research Administration, effective Aug. 15. The other searches are ongoing.)

What changes are researchers going to see?

What you will see is that the Office of Research is more responsive, more attuned to customer needs, able to respond faster to complex contracts. Previously, it took about a year to negotiate a corporate deal. My goal is to reduce that to the absolute minimum, reduce the time to get something out the door.

I’ve read the reports from the chancellor’s blue-ribbon committees on research and on technology transfer, and the report from the Washington Advisory Group. I’m taking and implementing those recommendations, and part of that is adding much more capacity at the analytical level. I have a great team of people working for me, and they work very hard – but they are processing more than 4,000 grant applications a year and that has created a lot of stress. So I am flattening the structure, removing middle management, and adding more positions and resources at the analyst level.

Another recommendation from those reports was to be less risk-averse. This campus has been cautious in approaching arrangements with industry, and conservative in interpreting regulations and policy. And companies get tired of that. Why can they do a deal at another UC campus, but not UC Davis?

There’s been a perception out there that it’s hard to do business with UC Davis – we have to change that.

UC Davis already receives almost $700 million in research support. How can we increase that?

We can improve our processes and flatten our structure for administering research, and we have started to do that.

We can be more aggressive and less risk-averse in seeking out and negotiating partnerships and grants and contracts with industry, government and other institutions. We have an extraordinarily talented and distinguished faculty here, and excellent leadership from the deans. We have a unique alignment of strengths and resources especially across agriculture, medicine and veterinary medicine, biology, and engineering.

We need to be competing for the biggest grants. We have an amazing number of smaller grants and we need to leverage that talent to go after bigger grants and centers.

That means we need to make sure we are aligned with state and national priorities in research — that will be part of the role of one of the new associate vice chancellors. We have to be able to position our resources so that we can go after these big grants, in the range of five to $50 million.

How can you encourage more startup companies and licensing of UC Davis inventions?

We’re putting in place the infrastructure for that. We’re looking for a very skilled dealmaker for the associate vice chancellor position overseeing InnovationAccess, someone with private sector experience who knows what a CEO wants, what a venture capital investor wants. And as I mentioned we’re adding more people at InnovationAccess and we need to change the climate and be faster and more responsive.

We need to make sure we don’t penalize faculty who start companies. They want to do this, but they also worry about their retirement, benefits and so on. There are a lot of resources available through the Office of Research, the Provost’s office, the Graduate School of Management and we need to make sure people are aware of those.

We need to train entrepreneurs, and that’s where the programs in the Graduate School of Management such as the entrepreneurship programs in green tech or food and health are critical. These programs give people the skills and networks they need to succeed.

It takes an ecosystem to support new companies – ideas, workers, office space, investors, networking opportunities. With the Innovation Hub initiative we aim to team with local governments, business and business organizations and create that local ecosystem around UC Davis. We’ve gathered a lot of feedback on the Innovation Hub and we’re synthesizing those ideas into a campus plan to create that ecosystem.

Tell us about your own time at UC Davis. How has the campus changed?

I came here (from Cornell) to work with Clyde Stormont, who founded the Veterinary Genetics Lab and later Stormont Labs in Woodland. I worked on the genetics of disease resistance in large animals with Domenico Bernoco and we found the allele (genetic variant) that made cattle resistant to Bovine Leukemia Virus. And I continued working on that at the University of Illinois.

There has been a remarkable physical transformation on campus — Tupper Hall was brand-new when I came. There has been a tremendous growth in students and faculty. The life sciences orientation — with a new College of Biological Sciences — along with the strength in medical research and in engineering really attracted me back.

When I came here as a student you couldn’t find a person in a tie. It has become a little more businesslike, at least in the administration.

What do you see for the future?

We have the perfect alignment of talent to address the problems of the future — in health, wellness, food, the environment. We have great leadership in the chancellor and provost, who are in tune with the faculty. The conditions are right, and we are going to come out of this much stronger. I have an opportunity to lead the research enterprise of UC Davis into the future — that’s why I came back.

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