Gems of academia: faculty research shines

By Sindhu Gnanasambandan

With the help of funding from a variety of sources, UChicago faculty are engaged in groundbreaking research in fields ranging from education and economics to psychology and physics.

In the 2012 fiscal year (July 1, 2011–June 30, 2012), funding for University of Chicago faculty-led research increased by 6 percent, spurring a wide range of interdisciplinary research. Three quarters of the total $466 million came from federal agencies and the rest from corporations, foundations, and other non-profit organizations.

Faculty typically receive funding through a rigorous grant application process that connects faculty research goals and initiatives with the interests of the funding agencies, according to Elaine Allensworth, the interim executive director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).

“It’s a conversation always with funders in terms of work that we want to do and work that they want to do. Different funding organizations have different things that they want researched,” she said.

CCSR, which is dedicated to informing reform efforts in the Chicago Public Schools, received $1.2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine the ways to maximize student success through high school for a project started about a year and a half ago. In a letter describing the mission of their foundation, the Gates highlight the “failures of America’s education system” as one of the key issues of their foundation.

Because of the area-specific nature of its research, CCSR has been able to produce cutting-edge, practical theory that has informed policy in both the Chicago area and in schools nationwide, according to Allensworth.

“A lot of researchers complain that their research just sits on a shelf, but because we work to make it very accessible and usable for policy and practice, it actually does get used, so we are seen nationally as very successful,” she said. “When you are successful, it is easy to get money because people want you to work on their questions.”

The John Templeton Foundation funded research by both economics professor John List’s Science of Philanthropy Initiative and Psychology Professor Howard Nusbaum’s Defining Wisdom Project. List received $4.8 million beginning in October. Nusbaum’s three-year project received $4.9 million beginning last May.

Nusbaum noted that his research aligns with Templeton’s area of interest.

“Sir John Templeton was very interested in wisdom,” Nusbaum said. “He was interested in a number of ideas that had to do with our knowledge of the world and knowledge of ourselves as people, specifically positive attributes of humanity like gratitude, and trust, and generosity, and wisdom.”

One trend in research that can be seen at UChicago, as well as the rest of the academic world, is approaching fundamental questions through interdisciplinary methods.

“The University of Chicago is a good place to study wisdom because we have a lot of people across disciplines who are thoughtful and work together such that we can bring science and humanities and social sciences together to study wisdom in a way that might be relatively unique,” Nusbaum said.

This interdisciplinary approach is seen in the hard sciences as well.

The Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, which combines research from astronomy and physics, has received $3 million a year for the last 12 years from the National Science Foundation.

“The Kavli Institute brings together both astronomers and physicists to figure out the big questions: How did the universe begin? What is dark matter? What’s dark energy? How are particles unified? What is space and time?” Michael Turner, the current director of the Institute, said.

Allensworth also attested to the benefits of the interdisciplinary approach.

“We have psychologists, economists, sociologists, and people doing policy studies and education,” she said. “All the researchers here learn from each other…so then you get people thinking outside of their disciple in terms of how they approach things.”

Not only are the fundamental questions approached from different perspectives, but the research itself is interrelated and compounding.

“We try to build our studies onto each other, so we are not just doing isolated studies where we look at this fact and that fact, but we are coming to an understanding, a deeper understanding of an issue,” Allensworth said.