Administrators are ready to begin a fundraising push in support of the Columbia Science Initiative.
The initiative, which was created last fall, will fund ongoing projects at Columbia, including the Earth Institute; the Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative; and the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering. It will also fund new projects that will be built from the ground up, support faculty research, and fund graduate students.
G. Michael Purdy, executive vice president for research, said the ultimate goal of the initiative is to push all science departments at Columbia into top-10 national rankings.
“It was triggered by a number of things—the availability of new space in Manhattanville and the coincidence that we anticipated many retirements in the faculty in the arts in science over the next decade,” Purdy said. “This is the right time for us to have a broad look at what areas of basic science resources we should be focused on, going forward.”
In addition to the three existing projects that faculty identified as priorities, the initiative will fund three new programs that will focus on molecular architecture, life, and origins.
“For each of the themes, we are talking about developing a center-based structure,” said Amber Miller, dean of sciences for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “In the molecular architecture theme, there will be a nanoscience center, and associated with that, a nanofabrication facility that will have a large impact not only on the researchers within arts and sciences, but also in engineering.”
“One of the big challenges when you do something like this is that everyone wants to focus on something new and sometimes neglect the research and activities that are already going on. That is really important stuff,” Purdy said. “We put equal emphasis in the plan on all six of the themes.”
The initiative will also help establish a stronger postdoctoral program. Miller said that there is seed funding to support three postdoctoral fellows for two years. The initiative has already hired two fellows and will hire a third next year.
“Their role would be primarily research, but mentoring as well,” Miller said. “A big piece of what we are doing here is providing our undergraduates with incredible opportunities to do research here.”
“Every one of the programs we are talking about building, every one of the faculty we are talking about hiring, is going to have a huge impact on the kind of opportunities that are available to the undergraduates at Columbia,” Miller said. “The hope is that they will do very exciting things here and help convince potential donors that this would be a really great thing to have here, so that we could expand this program and make it permanent.”
Miller and Purdy both said that fundraising poses a challenge. Though Purdy has already begun reaching out to donors, he said that he expects the fundraising to take between five and 10 years.
“We can’t just pull out the Rolodex and call some people. It is all about relationship-building,” Purdy said. “It is the resources that are going to allow us to bring these really ambitious goals in this plan into reality.”
“We wanted to make sure that we had a really faculty-driven process so that when we figured out what we were gong to raise funds for, it was what is important to the faculty and the students,” Miller said. “It was very long and drawn-out, but it really gave us a clear way of saying this plan speaks for Arts and Sciences.”
Frits Paerels, chair of the astronomy department, said he believes the strategy will be effective.
“The thing that makes this really interesting, compared to plans that people have had in decades past, is that there is strong support from the central administration and from the trustees as well,” he said.
Paerels said that the science departments are excited to see what will come out of the plan and hope that more funding will open up for new projects.
“I want to cover a whole range of investments—from new facilities, to updating things that already exist, to making it possible for people to do their job far more effectively by rearranging the way they work,” Paerels said. “The first thing that people in Pupin want to get funding for is a center for theoretical physics that brings together a number of physicists that are distributed among a number of floors and offices.”
Paerels said faculty are discussing the possibility of joining a consortium that operates a large, roughly 30-meter telescope, adding that this would allow Columbia to compete with Caltech and European universities.
“We could use this for all types of things. These are flexible enough facilities that we could do all kinds of groundbreaking research,” he said.
Paerels believes that the work the science departments do is worth the extra money.
“Once you start generating waves, you get to the point where the buzz starts to affect a significant number of the people here, not just in the sciences,” Paerels said. “Science is of interest for its own sake. If you let people just do stuff, interesting things happen, as long as you let them just keep asking questions.”