Vanderbilt investing more than $100 million in “transinstitutional” research

November 7, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt University is investing more than $100 million of its own money to create a series of interdisciplinary research centers designed to propel its faculty members into the forefront of a number of selected research frontiers.

“Assuming that the money is spent wisely, this is the most significant effort to accelerate the development and enhancement of its academic research programs in the modern history of Vanderbilt,” said one of the program’s architects, Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for health affairs. “I don’t believe there has ever been a time when this amount of new capital has been available for people and programs in a relatively short period.”

The program began quietly in February 2001 when the Vanderbilt Board of Trust’s Executive Committee approved the formation of a new source of funding for academic programs, called the Academic Venture Capital Fund (AVCF) in February 2001. It draws money from four basic revenue sources: funds from a “quasi-endowment,” unrestricted money in the endowment that comes primarily from operating budget surpluses from prior years that have been invested profitably; a general revenue tax that the central administration levies across the university; focused philanthropy; and, a portion of the university’s future earnings from its technology transfer program.

For years, researchers have realized that many exciting new discoveries take place at the intersections between different fields of study, such as physics and chemistry or biology and engineering. Supporting such interdisciplinary efforts, particularly during the early formative years, has been difficult for universities like Vanderbilt, which typically are organized into financially distinct colleges and schools. The AVCF provides a mechanism that allows Vanderbilt to increase its support for such interdisciplinary research that cuts across traditional college and school boundaries.

The program was granted spending authority last fall and six new multi-year research initiatives were established. These include initiatives in law and business, learning sciences, integrative biosystems, nanoscale science and engineering, integrative and cognitive neuroscience and proteomics and functional biology. Support for a one-year planning grant in environmental risk and resource management was also approved.

This month, Nicholas S. Zeppos, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, announced the approval for two more multi-year research initiatives as part of the program. These focus on chemical biology and the functional genomics of zebrafish.

“We’re very excited by the possibilities that these new initiatives open up for Vanderbilt,” said Zeppos.

A critical element in designing the new program was coming up with the criteria that proposals must meet to be considered for AVCF support. Officials came up with a list of concrete criteria to use as “guidelines.” Proposals are expected to meet most but not necessarily all of the criteria.

“The criteria dominantly focus on two issues,” said Jacobson. “The proposals need to be transformative: They should have the potential for creating a program here at Vanderbilt with real national stature. Proposals also should have the ability to become largely self-supporting either through third-party research funding, support by schools and colleges or through philanthropy.”

Vanderbilt officials have set up a special system for selecting the proposals that will be funded in this fashion. They have created two strategic academic planning groups, one in the medical center and one on the central campus, that review and rank incoming proposals. The proposals from both groups then go to a central council consisting of the vice chancellor for health affairs; provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs; the vice chancellor for administration; and the treasurer and vice chancellor for investments. The council compares the proposals from the two groups and prepares a final set of recommendations for the chancellor.

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Contact: David Salisbury, 615-343-6803,

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