Breaking down the research process at OSU
Friday, October 21, 2022
Media Contact: Harrison Hill | Senior Research Communications Specialist | 405-744-5827 | email@example.com
Although the concept of research is often associated with laboratory sciences, research at a comprehensive university like Oklahoma State takes place in virtually all disciplines.
Laboratory scientists conduct controlled experiments, field researchers study phenomena in natural settings and social scientists uncover the complex patterns of behavior in everything from economies to relationships.
Historians study, synthesize and make sense of events over time; artists devise new ways to experience the human condition; engineers solve problems to make things work in the physical world; and theoretical physicists devise models and explanations for how galaxies, stars, planets and invisible forces formed and sustain our universe. All of these creative endeavors — and many more — constitute research.
Why do research?
Universities invest in research because of the three E’s: Expertise, Example and Extension.
Expertise: The top experts in any discipline, even if they have a passion for teaching, want to keep pushing the boundaries of their fields. To recruit and retain accomplished academics to teach OSU students, we empower and support them to continue their research.
Example: By learning from these top experts — not only in the classroom, but also in the laboratory, in the clinic, on the stage and in other real-life research contexts — OSU students are propelled into expertise of their own very early in their academic careers.
Extension: Investing in research allows OSU the opportunity to make a public impact. At OSU, we take the latest knowledge and solutions developed by our experts and share that information directly with people in our communities who need those solutions the most.
Advances in childhood nutrition get into the hands of school lunch programs and young parents. Advances in wheat varieties get into the fields of Oklahoma farmers. New understanding of economic stressors impact rural communities, gets into city council meetings and impacts policy decisions. At a land-grant university like OSU, we take our research directly to the public whenever possible.
Funding research with grants
There are some philanthropic people and foundations that provide outright gifts that OSU can use to fund research. But research grants are different. Most research grants come from federal or state agencies, although some can come from private foundations and even private individuals. Unlike gifts that might be designated for a particular theme or topic, research grants are tied to specific projects.
The grant process usually works something like this:
- A funding agency — or private funder — publishes a description of the types of projects it would consider funding and a specific process for proposing a project for funding.
- An OSU researcher (or team of researchers) learns of the funding opportunity and has a relevant project idea they would like to pursue.
- The researcher then works with university support staff to prepare and submit a grant application, including a detailed budget for exactly how the funds would be spent to carry out the project.
- If the funder selects the OSU application, then a grant is made to OSU (not to the researchers as individuals) to allow the researcher(s) to conduct the project.
The grant essentially becomes a contract between OSU and the funding agency. OSU as an institution is then responsible for ensuring the project is conducted consistent with expectations, usually including progress reports and final reports.
Research grants are extremely important to OSU, in that they help our researchers conduct projects that are impactful without overly taxing institutional resources. They provide critical opportunities to students (who are often employed by the grants), and they are key indicators that our faculty experts are developing their research capabilities in ways respected by the broader disciplines. However, contrary to common misconceptions, research grants do not financially “profit” the university. At best, research grants cover the costs of the projects they support.
Developing new technologies
Sometimes, the problem being addressed by a research project is the need for a new tool or product that will be useful in a given industry. Other times, a researcher is trying to answer a very basic question and in doing so develops a new technology they realize could have a larger impact.
Either way, something is invented that has potential commercial value. When that happens in university research, we engage a technology commercialization process that proceeds as follows:
- The researcher informs our commercialization team about the invention.
- Our team assesses the potential market for the invention (likely customers; competitors, etc.)
- OSU protects the intellectual property via a patent, copyright or trade secret process.
- Our team works with the researcher to document proof of concept and develop a functional prototype.
The technology is scaled up and taken to market … either by licensing it to an existing company in the sector or by establishing a start-up company that will hold a license to sell the technology.
Every one of these steps can require resources. To keep the development moving forward, we often pursue federal technology development grants at early stages, or we take on private investors at later stages. At each step there is risk of failure. But OSU innovations taken all the way to successful market penetration have great benefit to everyone involved: consumers get a tool that adds value to their lives, investors get a return on their investments, and OSU receives licensing fees and royalties that we share with the inventors and then use to invest in new innovations.
It is a long journey from the beginning to the end of the research process. And at OSU, when one project is over, it is time to start another as our research is never truly finished. That tireless dedication to finding solutions to the world’s problems is what keeps the process always in motion.