After couple of postponements due to the pandemic, I finally had the privileged to travel to the University of California Davis. As a research support professional, I was intrigued about the type of support services offered over there, how comparable they may be to what we do at the University of Helsinki.
And what I experienced surpassed my most optimistic expectations, with researchers as well as colleagues from both the Global Affairs and the Office of Research sharing not just the information on how they are organized but fully open to talk about their very relatable experiences: what is working not so well, what on the pipeline. Yes, I had some indirect contacts and recommendations, but travelling all the way to meet in person, coming from a country as sympathetic as Finland, and even more so having a Fulbright Finland Travel Grant for Institutional Partnership Building - that worked the magic!
What I learnt is too vast to try bring to this post, but perhaps a top-two would be on sustainability and interdisciplinarity, both current emphases also at the University of Helsinki. As per sustainability, I was impressed to hear Jolynn Shoemaker’s insights on their pioneering Sustainable Development Goals Voluntary University Review, a highly recommended read that details the relevance of their university operations (including their research) to each of the 17 SDGs.
Supporting interdisciplinary research
In terms of interdisciplinarity, I was fortunate to discuss with the leaders of their Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives division, Cristina Davis and Whitney Cheung, who opened up on the successful experiences with their various centrally-coordinated seed funding schemes. For example, via their Interdisciplinary Research Catalyst scheme, researchers can apply for both small ($5,000) and larger grants ($50,000, on a matching basis with the corresponding school or college) to improve their preparedness to pursue large scale interdisciplinary funding opportunities.
Further, building on the experiences of the still running Big Ideas program, UC Davis is initiating a Grand Challenges initiative. Not that the current Big Ideas programme is not working, explained me the champion of the Big Idea “Global Human Rights” Michael Lazzara, but UC Davis wants to double-down in the effort to create a collective response to global challenges in a way that is even better coordinated and resourced.
Of course that support schemes and initiatives need to be contextualized, and the contexts of Finnish and U.S. universities are certainly not the same. For a relatively similar student population and average position in the world ranking, UC Davis counts on six times the budget and four times the external research funding of the University of Helsinki. And one could go on with tuition fees, campus size… Still, whether comparable or not, I found their ambition and proactivity highly inspiring. Not to mention how much I enjoyed the whole campus experience, with concerts at the Mondavi Center, exhibitions at the Manetti Shrem Museum, the Memorial Day commemoration… and cheering for the Aggies in my first ever baseball match!