|VP research candidate Johnson discusses experience|
Phyllis Johnson, research associate with the Smithsonian Institute, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park and a candidate for vice president for research and economic development, discussed her experience at an open forum May 6. Johnson, a Grand Forks native, holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from UND. She served as a laboratory instructor at what is now the University of Mary in Bismarck from 1971 to 1972. She began working at the Grand Forks USDA Human Nutrition Research Center as a graduate student in 1975, and moved through the ranks as a postdoc, chemist, research chemist, and research leader. She was named associate director of the Pacific West Area, USDA Agricultural Research Service in California, in 1976. That same year she became associate director of the Beltsville Area USDA ARS. She was named director of that branch in 1997 and remained in that position until 2008, when she chose early retirement rather than transfer to California. She then moved to her present positions, where she works with scientific policy and represents the U.S. government at an international level regarding scientific collections. Johnson said she has exposure to a large range of scientific disciplines, including every area of food and agriculture. As director of the Beltsville ARS, she supervised 325 people with doctorates and 1,800 staff. When she transferred to Beltsville, she said they were just beginning to commercialize their research, and she pushed technology transfer there. “It became a model for federal laboratories,” she said. She has managed a broad range of research, from etymology to genomics to remote sensing.
She then took questions from the audience, the answers to which are summarized below.
Regarding the possibility of transitioning to a university setting, Johnson said there are more similarities than differences between the ARS and a university. The difference, she said, is that a university has a teaching mission, where the Center employed students in labs. She said that scientists and scholars tend to be similar, with an inner vision of where they want their work to progress, and that her job would be to provide the tools and get out of their way. Johnson said she has worked with programs to bring students into the labs, and would like to teach a course. She said that economic development and commercialization activities would be similar, and that she would work to bridge the gap between scientists and business people to create salable products.
About supporting the humanities, Johnson said she was an honors
student as an undergraduate at UND, and was required to take more arts and humanities courses than many other students. “I’m grateful for that,” she said. “Arts and humanities are important.” All creative activities, she added, are valuable. “Arts and humanities set us apart, help us understand the world, help us learn to think and communicate better,” she said. She added that if the University values creativity and scholarship, we should find ways to support it. “Part of my job would be to find the money, help people learn to write grants, and look at the rewards systems,” she said. For example, she said, at Founders Day, we could recognize scholarship with awards for art, books, and more. “If people are going to feel valued, they need to be recognized when they do well.”
One audience member asked if it would be possible to be paid for their time spent writing and thinking. It’s hard to have an opinion without knowing more, Johnson said, but it would be worth examining. “Funds are always limited, and we need to set priorities and seek input.” A follow-up question asked whether these types of activities should be funded. Johnson said that she prefers to function without making unilateral, top-down decisions, especially when she doesn’t know anything about it. “I would bring people together, hear what they have to say, and then make a decision,” she said. “I don’t want to be the czar of research and creative activity, I want to be a facilitator who listens before making a decision.”
Another questioner then asked whether lab work would receive similar scrutiny regarding funding. The issue is not whether research in the arts and humanities needs to be done, but how to allocate resources, Johnson replied, adding that she would need input before making decisions both on humanities and scientific activities. Another audience member said that people in the arts and humanities want to know that the person in charge of research understands and supports what they do: produce knowledge. “There is some anxiety,” that person acknowledged, “and we seek passion for our research. Arts and humanities grants won’t cover time, and we need support for time to write and think.” Johnson said there are many kinds of research, and knows that research takes extensive periods of time. Though she is not an artist, musician, or author, she enjoys the products of that creativity, and would like to better understand arts and humanities needs. Without that understanding, she said, it’s very hard to help. “I would like to sit down and learn how you write, paint, create, and then figure out how to make things better.”
If she were to be named vice president, an audience member asked Johnson how she would prepare for the transition to dealing with arts and humanities. “The best way to find out what arts and humanities need is to talk to people doing those activities,” she said. “I learned a long time ago that saying, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,’ doesn’t work.” She said she would draw on her experience with community organizing, find out what people are interested in, and identify issues to address.
It’s important for faculty to have a role in developing research policy, as well as priority use of money, said Johnson. “It’s important to have input from faculty and anyone else affected,” she added. “It’s easy to issue fiats, but then you have to fix the consequences.” She said that no policy will make everyone happy, but more workable policies emerge when there is input. “I will make decisions, but I prefer input first.”
Undergraduate research is invaluable, said Johnson, who performed research both in high school and as an undergraduate. The experience helps students understand how big their field is beyond the textbook. “It gives students confidence and makes them competitive.”
The role of the vice president for research and economic development is to serve as a focal point for research and scholarly activities, Johnson said. In addition to ensuring compliance, that person would facilitate planning and funding. “Where the potential for commercial applications exists,” she said, she would figure out how to make it happen. She said she would be the chief marketer for research and creative activity, and help legislators and others understand its importance.
When asked how else she’d encourage research, Johnson said that she would reward behavior and encourage interdisciplinary work. At Beltsville, she said, there were 35 labs, which are similar to university departments. Once a year, she gathered all investigators in a room to discuss their work. She said she learned a great deal, people appreciated the opportunity to talk about their work, and she would like to do something like that at UND.
Regarding economic development, she said there are obvious areas, such as aerospace and EERC. However, she said that the research division has patents, but she doesn’t know if they have licensed technology. She said she would work to translate research into products and jobs. For example, she said, a project involving engineering at both UND and NDSU, as well as the medical school, could result in commercialization. “I want to help graduates in other fields stay and get jobs here,” she said.
When asked if she would advocate for faculty regarding the control of indirect cost monies, Johnson said she would. She added that another funding source is needed to encourage activity, since there is very little discretionary money. In response to a follow-up questions, she said that if the University values research and creative activity, it has to be in the budget, and other funding sources could include the legislature, public, and private sources. “The state worries about outmigration of young people, and we must create jobs for them,” she said.
An audience member asked Johnson to describe a time she made a wrong decision and how she dealt with it. Johnson said that when she was in California, she had deputy responsibility for three labs in Hawaii, and that, under her director’s orders, whenever she visited the labs, the first thing she did was visit the Hawaii senator’s office, “get beat up,” and then try to work with the University of Hawaii, which was ordered not to cooperate with the USDA. This went on for five years, she said. Then, after she was put in charge, she decided to hold a workshop and invite the agricultural community in Hawaii. They expected around 50 people and had 125. She learned, she said, that the fruitfly research that USDA had been conducting for the last 20 years was not what was needed. The real problems were a virus and nematode that affected pineapple and other areas, which posed a danger to agriculture in the state. So she convinced her headquarters to research the problems. It was a turning point in Hawaii,” she said. “We redirected the research, the Congressional delegation was thrilled, and we were funded for a new building.”
Johnson said she recognizes that faculty who are expected to increase research without a corresponding decrease in other responsibilities can burn out. She said that UND can’t grow research and creative activity without more faculty, and one solution may be to assign a postdoctoral student to each faculty member. “UND has increased its research in the last 10 years, and it will continue to grow,” she said. “But we can’t sustain that upward trajectory indefinitely without more people.”
“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Johnson replied to a question asking how she would set priorities if a large sum of money were suddenly available. She said one of her favorite questions is what she would do with a million dollars, and that she would have that information in mind. That and a sense of strategic priorities would help the University respond quickly. She said that her process would involve dialogue with faculty and not be entirely top-down. “The administration can lay out a vision, but we need input,” she said.
When asked how she perceives the UND strategic plan, she said there are a lot of little operational goals and some vague strategies. She said the University needs to identify areas on which to build, and that we can’t be all things to all people. She would continue energy research, biomedicine (especially neuroscience), proteomics, and human nutrition. One audience member commented that her list contained scientific areas instead of humanities. Johnson responded that the audience member made a good point, and that should be addressed if the University develops another strategic plan.
Regarding a fissure between humanities and sciences, Johnson said she would try to heal the wound by paying attention to the arts and humanities and find points of intersection and dialogue, looking for ways to work together.
Responding to a comment that a significant portion of the general public doesn’t know much about UND, Johnson said she would like to create opportunities for people to come together. For example, she said, she would bring in speakers who could engage and bring the community and University together.
-- Jan Orvik, Writer/Editor, University Relations, email@example.com, 777-3621