UConn Research Enterprise Funding Surges to Record Levels

For the first time in University history, faculty researchers have won more than $300 million in sponsored program awards

The UConn sign on Route 195 in Storrs.

(Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn has hit an impressive new high in external research funding, with its faculty attracting more than $375 million in new awards in the past fiscal year at Storrs, UConn Health, and the regional campuses despite competing for the grants against the backdrop of the global pandemic.

The University secured a then-record amount of $285.8 million in research funding in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but had never exceeded $300 million until now.

In the 2020-21 fiscal year that ended June 30, the research enterprise at UConn and UConn Health surged to $375.6 million in sponsored program awards, including its largest-ever award in the form of a $40 million research grant to the School of Medicine.

Even without that grant, the University would have easily broken the FY20 record due to the efforts of the researchers across the campuses whose 746 proposals were selected for one-time or multi-year funding from external sponsors like federal agencies, state government, and industry.

The FY21 figure also well exceeds the five-year average of about $255 million annually between the 2015 and 2020 fiscal years, with each of the past four years pushing past the previous year’s amounts.

“UConn puts a great deal of attention and work into the support and cultivation of its research, and we have many reasons to be optimistic based on our trajectory in recent years that this growth is a trend that will continue,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship.

The increase in sponsored awards for FY21 also comes at a time when the University’s research strength is being recognized in other ways, including awards this year to eight of its researchers across six disciplines who were selected under the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (NSF CAREER) Program.

The growth of external research funding at UConn and UConn Health clearly tracks with the state’s many investments throughout our campuses, for which we remain very grateful. — Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, CEO of UConn Health and Interim UConn President

UConn and UConn Health also consistently have multiple faculty members named annually to the Highly Cited Researchers List, a summary of scientists and social scientists who produced papers ranking in the top 1% by citations for their field and year of publication, demonstrating significant research influence among their peers.

“The University works every day to strengthen Connecticut’s position as a national and global center of innovation,” says Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, UConn’s Interim President and CEO of UConn Health. “Sponsored program awards are critical to the research underpinning those efforts, and to the equally important missions of expanding the academic enterprise and providing hands-on experience to students and early-career researchers.”

The state has invested generously in UConn and UConn Health over the past several decades to build and renovate laboratories and research centers through UConn 2000, Bioscience Connecticut, Next Gen Connecticut, and other initiatives including establishing the Innovation Partnership Building at Storrs.

“The growth of external research funding at UConn and UConn Health clearly tracks with the state’s many investments throughout our campuses, for which we remain very grateful,” Agwunobi says. “It is said that for whom much is given, much is required. Every day on every campus, the University, its faculty and staff, and its students take that to heart.

“The newest record-high annual research funding total is a demonstration of that ambition and commitment,” he adds. “The University is proud to have such dedicated researchers on its campuses, and the breadth and importance of their work cannot be overstated.”

Maric says researchers who submitted grant proposals in FY21 were enterprising in the scope and intent of their work, often proposing innovative collaborations across disciplines within the UConn Storrs and regional campuses, UConn Health, and other institutions.

UConn’s core research priorities also complement national topics of importance such as genomics and neuroscience, climate studies, cybersecurity, energy, personalized medicine, cancer detection and care, manufacturing innovations, and other areas.

UConn has more than 2,000 active researchers across its campuses and partners with about 150 institutions worldwide, according to information compiled by OVPR. It is also one of only three U.S. members of the Universitas 21 network, the leading global network of research universities for the 21st century.

These are the discoveries that truly lead to a better quality of life, and that is why research is so important at UConn and throughout our country. — Radenka Maric, Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

The research enterprise’s growth has helped the University recruit talented new faculty and provide opportunities for veteran faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to delve more deeply into their research areas and explore new interests, often across disciplines.

“The faculty are very passionate about the research they are undertaking, and it is showing in their results,” Maric says. “People are working to break barriers and create new knowledge, and to create in the spirit of innovation that America is known for.”

Many of the UConn faculty members conducting complex research also are dedicated classroom instructors; active clinicians in their medical settings; and mentors to young faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates whose experiences set a foundation for their own research futures.

“They often are doing many things at once, and are consistently excelling,” Maric says.

The research topics cross a wide range of disciplines, including the $40 million granted to the School of Medicine. That research team is working to create a powerful method for analyzing molecules, which will help advance biological sciences research nationwide into disease biomarkers as a way to improve diagnostics, drug discovery, treatments, and potential cures.

UConn researchers received funding for a multitude of other projects and initiatives of all sizes. They range from studying how black holes merge to sustainable poultry production, whether interventions that resemble video games can help alleviate depression in older adults, developing a training program for leaders of color at nonprofit organizations, establishing a prestigious Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at UConn Health, and many other topics.

One thing they all have in common is that the research topics either directly create or support improvements in people’s lives, Maric says, be it through healthcare advances, job creation in new industries, cybersecurity, sustainability, identifying and combatting the effects of climate change, and other areas.

“These are the discoveries that truly lead to a better quality of life, and that is why research is so important at UConn and throughout our country,” she says.

The University also is committed to increasing access and research opportunities for underrepresented populations, and to studying medical and social topics that have particular impact in communities of color, among older Americans, in underserved schools, and elsewhere.

Its faculty also have been able to use their expertise to delve into researching COVID-19 and related aspects of that illness and other communicable illnesses; the growing fields of hemp, cannabis, and marijuana studies; and to create a home base for researchers, centers, and institutes at the high-tech Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Storrs.