PSU’s vice president of research keeps an eye on the big picture

Neil Sharkey, Penn State's vice president for research, said U.K.-based global engineering company Morgan Advanced Materials plans to open a 30,000-square-foot research and design facility at Penn State's Innovation Park.
Neil Sharkey, Penn State's vice president for research, said U.K.-based global engineering company Morgan Advanced Materials plans to open a 30,000-square-foot research and design facility at Penn State's Innovation Park. Photo provided

Editor’s note: This story is part of the CDT’s Business Matters special section.

Neil Sharkey is a prolific researcher, a father of four and, it turns out, an avid guitar player.

“What’s really interesting, and maybe something I’ve come to appreciate more and more since I’ve been in this office, is most of our brilliant, creative researchers around here are also really into the arts and humanities,” he said, “and I find that myself.”

As vice president for research for Penn State, he’s responsible for harmonizing the interests of academia and industry. Plucking the right strings takes a deft hand besides an eye on the big picture.

And muscle, too: Penn State’s research expenditures totaled $836 million for the 2016 fiscal year.

Below, he shared his office’s vision for Penn State for the next few years and beyond. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: How have you seen the relationship between academia and industry change?

A: I got into this in 1980. Even when I was at UC Davis (as a graduate student and then a faculty member), some of the work we were doing was funded by implant companies, so I’ve been sort of exposed to that my whole career.

If you plot the graphs, federal investment in Research & Development is going south, but industry investment is on a pretty steep trajectory up. So particularly in the last four or five years we’re seeing an increased investment from the private sector.

It’s a little different from pre-2007 when it would be more philanthropic. Nowadays industry is looking for value and really wants universities to function as R&D extensions to extend their bottom line. So I think there’s a bit of shift in expectation.

Q: How would you describe your office’s initiatives?

A: I look at it in two ways. There’s the startup and entrepreneurial stuff that we’ve been enhancing through the Invent Penn State enterprise, but I have to emphasize a lot of this stuff was in existence already. We coalesced it and put a label on it and charged it up, but it wasn’t brand new.

And then there’s the industry partnerships side. Penn State has always had relationships with companies, again there’s just been more emphasis on it since I assumed this position.

Q: What effect will the new administration have on how universities operate?

A: I think there’s a lot of people just sitting and waiting. We don’t have a good sense of what the president is going to do just in terms of basic science agency funding; funding we typically get from the (National Science Foundation and National Institues of Health and Department of Energy) is a big question mark. For instance, we do a lot with environmental studies; we’re a world leader in agriculture and the environment. I’m not ready to jump off a cliff about it. We have to wait and trust our judgment. The good news is we have expertise in everything. We get a lot of funding from the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy. We are very well-distributed. I liken that to a diverse portfolio.

Q: As universities play larger roles in innovation and moving the world forward, how does Penn State balance that task with its educational mission?

A: It’s a major part of our development campaign to make sure to try and get our students out in four years and we have new programs that help us to do that. Because the students who can least afford it are the ones who take the longest to graduate. Because they have to work, they have less time and they end up with more debt. We’re doing as many programs as we can afford, including pointing a lot of donor dollars at trying to come up with mechanisms to get our undergraduates through to their degrees as quickly as possible. We’ve been trying to keep tuitions as low as we can, but as you know Pennsylvania tuitions are high because we don’t get a lot of state dollars. Obviously if the commonwealth had the dollars, and it doesn’t, we’d be able to hold tuitions flat for the foreseeable future. But it’s impossible to do as our expenses go up.

But I think that’s the key is trying to keep student debt as low as possible. The students who come from families who can afford to send their kids to college have an unfair advantage in this entrepreneurial space. Because they can walk out and be creative and they might have a family who can invest a bit in these things, and it really is unfair. It’s part of a land-grant mission to level that playing field. But it’s a challenge.

These are things the nation should be concerned about: These are inequities.

We can’t do this on the backs of our students. The states continue to divest from their public institutions, hence the student-debt problem continues to grow. If you look at the constraints, there’s only so many places to get dollars for R&D.

There are so many social and technical challenges that we face. So, for example, we’re going to have 9 billion people by 2045 (the United Nations project the world’s population to hit 9.7 billion by 2050), and most of those people are going to live in cities. There’s a huge global urbanization going on.

In solving these problems, we have a role to play in that.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy