The University of Michigan is offering trios of faculty members the chance to make interdisciplinary connections and get a quick start on high-risk, high-reward research projects.
The $15-million program, announced earlier this week, is called MCubed. Beginning this fall, each professor in a department with a research component will receive a token for $20,000. Professors can then discuss project ideas with colleagues. Once a minimum of three researchers—at least two of whom must be from different disciplines—decide to work together, they will register their project online and immediately receive $60,000 to hire an undergraduate, graduate student, or postdoctoral researcher. The collaborations and funding can scale up, but only by factors of three tokens.
The program aims to fund about 250 projects during its first-year pilot phase. The goal is to help faculty members gather the type of preliminary data that are typically needed to submit a competitive grant proposal to a federal research agency or other funding source.
Why make three the magic number? "It's a unit that really allows people to be truly interdisciplinary and really also provide opportunities for small schools at the University of Michigan to participate," says Thomas Zurbuchen, an engineering professor at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and one of MCubed's founders. Larger groups run the risk of being dominated by a single discipline, he says. And groups of three are small enough to allow everyone's voice to be heard, he says.
In addition to giving faculty members a chance to explore potentially fruitful ideas, MCubed will allow researchers to get moving more quickly than is ordinarily possible through more traditional funding mechanisms. "Imagine a model where I go look at Science magazine and I notice, 'Wait, there's some huge opportunity here,' " Zurbuchen explains. "Then I realize I have a colleague over in liberal arts, and one in medicine, and that together with an engineering professor, we have the team to go take the next leap based on that new knowledge."
A larger university initiative aimed at fostering interdisciplinary research will provide $5 million in core funding for MCubed. That amount will be supplemented by $10 million from departments, schools, and colleges. In some cases, investigators may be asked to contribute as well, according to university Provost Philip J. Hanlon.
Nicolai Lehnert is a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, chemistry professor who is looking forward to cashing in his token. "This could be a major mechanism to fund new ideas and get new interdisciplinary projects off the ground," he says. "Government funding agencies usually expect extensive preliminary results, which require resources and time that are not always available."