Tony Frank: On research

With the pandemic and elections taking so much of our focus this fall, it can be easy to lose track of the fundamentals that drive higher education and the CSU System: teaching, research, and outreach that supports our communities. But all this year, even while moving their courses online and working to connect with students in their new digital classrooms, our faculty have not only kept their focus – they have excelled.

In fact, our flagship research university in Fort Collins broke a new record in 2020 – topping $400 million in research expenditures for the first time ($407 million total). At CSU Pueblo, research and scholarship are largely focused on enriching undergraduate education – with awards this year including a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to support cyber security and technology education.

Research is an engine of economic prosperity and societal advancement. University research translates directly into innovation, technological advances, and private-sector jobs. Research launched at the CSU System has fueled the formation of 50 new start-up companies in Colorado since 2006. CSU also ranks in the Top 100 universities for U.S. patents in 2019-20, according to the National Academy of Inventors.

And of course, all of the remarkable progress this year has taken place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Around the world, university faculties and infrastructures have pivoted as part of a massive mobilization of brainpower against a clear and common threat. And Colorado State University is at the forefront – one of the top ten universities worldwide in the research fight against COVID-19, alongside Harvard, Oxford, MIT, and Johns Hopkins.

CSU’s Vice President for Research is Alan Rudolph, who describes himself as having spent his entire career chasing pandemics. Alan came to Colorado from a high-profile career in the federal government and private industry, where his work focused on mitigating global health outcomes from outbreaks that pose a threat to the whole planet – pandemics, biological terror threats, and the like. Over the last several years, in partnership with our academic colleges and institutes, he’s helped position CSU to be prepared to respond in exactly the sort of crisis we’re experiencing today.

With this preparation, and the support and leadership of CSU President Joyce McConnell, our research university has rapidly mobilized in the fight against COVID. Today, CSU has more than 170 COVID-19 related projects, including vaccines. As Alan said recently, “The speed of mobilization and volume of effort is unlike any other research endeavor in the University’s 150-year history.”

And the scientific breakthroughs in our campus laboratories translate directly into our ability to keep students, staff, and faculty safe on campus. The health and safety protocols that allowed for on-campus learning this fall were shaped and refined daily by the discoveries happening on the research side. As an example, Mark Zabel, a professor and researcher in Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at CSU Fort Collins, spearheaded getting saliva testing to the Fort Collins campus as part of CSU’s ongoing surveillance efforts – an affordable way to help identify people who have COVID before they show symptoms. CSU’s testing of residence hall sewage as another early detection method is also being adopted as a national best practice by many universities. Other faculty have set aside their own research to dive in collaboratively to the fight against COVID.

All of this demonstrates the power of our state’s long-term investment in a nimble public health and research infrastructure.

And there are enduring lessons that will transcend this current crisis: lessons about the importance of preparation; about the value in giving faculty room and incentive to innovate; and about the importance of working in partnership with state and federal colleagues focused on a common goal. In 2001, in the wake of the anthrax attacks on our nation’s capital, Dr. Tony Fauci ran a major investment in what was then termed the National Biodefense System. This system was composed of a series of Regional Centers of Excellence and Regional Biocontainment Labs; CSU won this competition for our region of the country. The facilities in question include labs behind a biosecurity level 3 barrier that meet federal good manufacturing practice standards. GMP facilities behind a level 3 biosecurity barrier are rare, and that investment two decades ago is now paying off as CSU’s BioMarc is actively involved in COVID-19 diagnosis and vaccine work. As the federal government looks to make investments in response to lessons learned from this pandemic, I’m sure that America’s research universities will once again play a critical role in assuring that we are better prepared to meet the next pandemic that finds us.

This is research, with its attendant graduate education, applied for the benefit of the society we exist to serve, delivering fully on the promise of the tripartite mission that has been the foundation of land grant universities for over 150 years. We remain enormously proud to help deliver on the promise of that mission.



This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s December newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover