Friday Focus: Thinking big – our path to R1

Taryn Lopez, UAF Geophysical Institute research associate professor
Taryn Lopez, UAF Geophysical Institute research associate professor

May 26, 2023

By Taryn Lopez, UAF Geophysical Institute research associate professor

In 2018, I was invited by Chancellor White to lead UAF’s strategic planning goal to “Achieve R1 research status.” At the time I was relatively new faculty and knew little about the Carnegie Classification’s Very High Research status university ranking (R1). I was also used to working within my own discipline and focused on my own research. Achieving R1 status was a big idea that, like many other faculty on campus, I had difficulty wrapping my brain around! Together, with a team of faculty, staff, and students from across UAF, we learned what it means to be an R1 university, how R1 would benefit UAF, and how UAF could achieve that goal. 

R1 is the highest ranking of research activity for U.S. Ph.D. granting universities. R1 research status provides numerous benefits at the university, local and state-wide level, some of which include global recognition of research strength, increasing student enrollment, providing added value to degrees, and increasing contracts for local businesses. From 2018-2020 our strategic planning team worked diligently to figure out how UAF could achieve R1 research status. We found that UAF excels in STEM research expenditures and is on already on par with R1 universities. UAF also ranks very high in per-capita metrics, suggesting that our faculty are exceptionally productive. However, compared to R1 universities we have relatively low numbers of non-STEM research expenditures and doctoral degrees awarded in the four disciplinary categories. Details on our findings and recommendations from our 2020 report can be found here.

So how do we get to R1? The most straightforward path for UAF to achieve R1 status requires doubling non-STEM research expenditures, research staff, and Ph.D. degrees awarded in the four disciplinary categories (humanities, social sciences, STEM and professional fields), while maintaining our strong STEM research expenditures. In reality, reaching those metrics will require a substantial university-wide effort, support and infrastructure. Some proposed mechanisms to achieve these metrics include strengthening existing and growing new Ph.D. programs, increasing funding opportunities for Ph.D. students, incentivizing the mentorship of Ph.D. students, recruiting excellent faculty (especially research faculty) and developing cross-campus research themes to foster research creativity and collaboration.

In 2018, when Chancellor White proposed the goal of achieving R1 research status, it sounded ambitious. In 2019, when the university was told to expect three years of state funding cuts, it sounded impossible. We stand here today having survived the state-wide budget cuts and over two years of the COVID pandemic. During this time UAF has become more resilient, and humans as a species have been reminded of an important lesson: big things are possible when people work together toward a common goal. Today, UAF is closer to R1 research status than ever before. With a university-wide effort toward attaining this goal, I am confident we can make this goal a reality.

At the February UA Board of Regents meeting, several regents expressed support for UAF striving for R1 research status. Chancellor White responded accordingly by revitalizing this goal. We are currently forming a steering committee to oversee UAF’s goal to achieve R1 status and working groups to implement specific mechanisms. Stay tuned for how you can help UAF achieve R1 research status – and start thinking big!

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF's leadership team every week. On occasion, a guest writer is invited to contribute a column.