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Rapid research funding experiment triples its money

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MCubed will continue for another three-year cycle

ANN ARBOR—A five-year, $30 million investment into bold research and scholarship from the University of Michigan and its faculty members has tripled into a return of nearly $100 million in follow-on funding.

The one-of-a-kind Mcubed program is designed to spark innovative projects without traditional review. It rapidly gives seed funding—either at a $60,000 or $15,000 level—with no questions asked to teams of three professors who represent at least two different disciplines. MCubed shortcuts the conventional grant review process that faculty members say slows progress and can prove too big a hurdle for a new team with a big idea to clear.

At the initiative's 2017 symposium today, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced that MCubed would continue for another three-year cycle—its third since launching in 2012. In this next cycle, UM-Flint will join U-M in Ann Arbor and UM-Dearborn.

"There is no shortage of creativity among our faculty, and MCubed helps to unleash their ambition more quickly across all disciplines," Schlissel said. "As a 200-year-old public university with outstanding academic breadth, we have the potential to be so much more than the sum of our many excellent parts. We need our best artists, humanists, scientists, teachers and others to pursue knowledge that will change society for the better."

In each cycle of MCubed, the U-M Provost's Office contributes $5 million. This funding stimulates investments by colleges, schools, departments and participating faculty members that have historically totaled an additional $10 million.

Since the program began, it has jumpstarted:

MCubed also has involved 1,553 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, all of whom have been trained to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

"We've seen an incredible amount of pent-up creative energy released into results," said MCubed managing director Valerie Johnson. "For faculty, this program is allowing them to return to the love of discovery that drove them to their field in the first place."

Here are some examples of projects and successes:

Mcubed was conceived and implemented by a group of faculty leaders from across the university, including Mark Burns, who is now executive director of MCubed and Research Innovation in the U-M Office of Research, as well as the T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

To put it in place, they had to convince all of U-M's 19 schools and colleges to participate. That wasn't easy considering that a cornerstone of the program was the lack of a formal review process.

"At first some deans said, 'Can't we just judge the projects?'" Burns said. "But how can you tell which ones will succeed and which ones won't? It's very hard to judge new and creative work, and I think that bears out in our traditional funding system.

"If your work hits on a new topic, half of your reviewees might say, "No, we don't believe this can be done, and the other half might say, 'Excellent! This is new!" but you don't get the funding. We started Mcubed so we could give truly innovative research a jumpstart."

The third cycle of MCubed will open for funding in fall 2018.

More information: