Three Syracuse University students have been selected as recipients of the Voyager Scholarship: the Obama-Chesky Scholarship for Public Service, a new award for juniors committed to public service funded by the Obama Foundation. The recipients are: Ka’ai Imaikalani I ’24…
Duncan Brown Takes on a New Mission as Vice President for Research (Q&A)
As the new vice president for research, Duncan Brown steps into a role in which he will orchestrate, support and enable the research, scholarship and creative activities that are central to the mission of the University. He notes that these activities form the ideas that society needs now and in the future.
“It is a critical moment to bring our research and scholarship to bear on both local and global challenges. We need the humanities, public communications and creative arts to help address the problems society is facing,” he says. “We need the fields of science and engineering to address the environmental challenges we’re facing. We need people in the social sciences to address an aging population and food production and distribution. We need people from policy and law to address the policies and legal underpinnings of the technologies we are creating and the framework of society. And at Syracuse University we can bring together experts in these and other areas to address society’s greater challenges.”
Brown’s role is to lead the Office of Research and its component units. That includes providing support to the University’s centers and institutes; advocating for advancements in infrastructure to support the University’s broad range of basic and applied research and creative activities; and empowering our faculty in their scholarly excellence.
Operationally, he helps to support over $100 million in external funding and supervises the work of the Office of Sponsored Programs, Office of Research Integrity and Protections, Office of Technology Transfer, Proposal Support Services and the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE). He reports to Vice Chancellor, Provost and Chief Academic Officer Gretchen Ritter.
An internationally recognized leader in gravitational-wave astronomy and astrophysics, Brown joined the University in 2007 as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since 2015, he has served as the Charles Brightman Endowed Professor of Physics, a role that he will continue to fill as an active researcher while serving as vice president for research.
In this Q&A, Brown provides insight into his vision for the Office of Research and how he intends to support faculty, students and staff to strengthen and grow research activities across the University community.
01What is your “big picture” perspective on leading the University’s Office of Research?
Our research and creative work is the forefront of human knowledge. It is how we advance society and how we advance our culture, our humanity, our understanding of the world in myriad ways. Having been at Syracuse since 2007, I have a broad definition of “research” that encompasses basic and applied research, scholarship and creative work, and projects that cut across disciplines. These activities are central to the academic mission at Syracuse, touching on the lives of everyone at the University and beyond.
Our research activities encompass undergraduate students who are learning from faculty members and doing cutting-edge work, graduate students making the transition from being consumers of knowledge to being producers of new knowledge and postdoctoral scholars continuing their career tracks. And our outstanding University staff are key to all aspects of this work because these activities require a tremendous amount of staff support.
02How do you view the state of research, scholarship and creative activities that are taking place here?
We have an excellent faculty at Syracuse University. There is intellectual breadth so faculty members can talk to each other to share ideas and bounce thoughts off others, yet we are a community that knows and cares enough about each other to make connections and forge new collaborations.
Undergraduate students have the opportunity to work with our faculty and get involved in cutting-edge work, with support available from SOURCE to match them to mentors and fund their work. There is enough of a variety of disciplines that students can find a research home in almost any field that interests them. Undergraduate students are a major driver of research initiatives, bringing fresh perspectives and diversity in creative thinking.
Graduate students are the intellectual engine of the research, scholarly and creative enterprise at Syracuse. Together with our postdoctoral scholars, graduate students are at a stage in their careers where they are the sharp end of the knowledge generation. We attract strong graduate students and postdocs who do world-changing research. I’m very proud of the graduate student population I’ve interacted with across campus, and I look forward to working with Graduate School Dean Peter Vanable to support them.
03What is unique about the realm of efforts taking place at Syracuse?
Our strength is our size. We’re a unique place where we are big enough to have all these pieces to bring to bear on societal problems but small enough that people can make connections with one another.
You can have a professor of engineering working with a faculty member in public policy on next-generational autonomous systems or net-zero challenges. You can have someone in the humanities making real strides in social justice and connecting that to the research in the sciences or engineering, embedding that thinking across multiple disciplines and impacting schools and colleges across the University.
It takes work to build connections between fields. I would like the Office of Research to play a key role in elevating both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. The Office of Research can bring people together, help break down silos, and allow faculty to find spaces and support to pursue the work they want to do.
04How do you plan to approach Office of Research operations?
My vision is to be an enabler who lets faculty in domain and disciplinary studies pursue deep disciplinary questions, as well as someone who facilitates connections for interdisciplinary interests and helps to develop bridges between faculty to investigate big questions requiring collaboration. Syracuse provides the perfect atmosphere to support a balance between these two efforts.
I’m also a builder. I’m looking to build the University’s research reputation and portfolio. And I want our faculty and students to know that the Office of Research is here to help them. There is an excellent staff in this office. We want the faculty to know we are there to support them and that we don’t sit apart from everyday activities. I see us as a resource to really lift the University’s research to the next level.
05What aspects of your own research career influence the orientation you bring to this role?
I think it’s the ability to work with a large team of people to strive for all that can be achieved. In my own research area of gravitational-wave astronomy, a large team was essential to achieving success. From Einstein’s initial ideas in 1915, it took 100 years to develop the theory and the hardware, plus a worldwide effort from hundreds of people working together to deliver what was ultimately a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. I went into gravitational-wave astronomy when people were skeptical that it was going to work, committing long-term to a project that might fail, but if it succeeded, might be wildly successful.
06What does being selected for this position mean to you personally and professionally?
I’m very excited to work with my faculty colleagues and our amazing students. And I know from my own personal experience at Syracuse that the Office of Research team is exceptional. It was very attractive to me that I could serve in this role to enable a much broader spectrum of activities over a much wider portfolio encompassing the work being done across all disciplines at the University.
It was not an easy decision to step back from my research career knowing I would be dedicating the vast majority of my time to serving as Vice President for Research. But, in some ways, it was an easy decision, because this is such a great institution with great faculty and great students.
I see the potential we have at Syracuse. There are a lot of great things we can do quickly. There are also big things we can do, looking toward the horizon at long-range planning.
07Do you have any parting thoughts?
I am inheriting an Office of Research that is in great shape to move forward thanks to the leadership of John Liu during his tenure as vice president for research. I also want to acknowledge the fantastic work that Ramesh Raina has done as interim vice president for research during a tremendously tough time for the University community. I am grateful to Ramesh for his advice and support during the transition period this summer, which has allowed me to hit the ground running.