With a few large leadership gifts and some strategically placed advertising in national media, Duke University is launching a new fundraising effort designed to elevate excellence in the sciences.
The faculty recruitment and retention effort, called Duke Science and Technology, will give the university resources to expand core strengths in Duke’s research, extending to nearly every corner of the university.
“We looked at our academic landscape and felt that we needed to accelerate our growth in the sciences,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “There are so many pressing societal problems that we want the university to address that require deep scientific expertise.”
Two $50 million investments from The Duke Endowment form the base of DST and will be used to accelerate and expand the recruitment of new faculty in science, medicine, technology, engineering and mathematics.
A cohort of 11 distinguished senior faculty was hired with the first round of endowment support in 2020, and a second wave of more junior hires is also in the works, Kornbluth said.
The main themes of DST are materials science, computing, and resilience of the body and brain. All three themes connect the campus with Duke Health, Kornbluth said. “This really is a One Duke effort,” she said.
The first round of advertising is appearing in national media, radio, podcasts, and social media and features biomedical engineer Shyni Varghese and a message about collaboration. Ad placements featuring a variety of other Duke faculty in materials, resilience and computing are planned to appear through at least July of next year.
“Resilience means understanding how systems adapt to injury and insult,” Kornbluth said. “How do they spring back? How do we understand the system well enough to help it recover? For example, with brain injuries or viral infection, how do we use what we know about the workings of the system to affect recovery?” Resilience spans neuroscience and psychology, cancer, cardiology, immunology and infectious disease, microbiology and more, she added.
David Kennedy, vice president of alumni engagement and development, said measures of success for DST will be higher departmental rankings, greater faculty diversity, increased research funding, more faculty named to national academies, and new companies and industry collaborations taking root around Duke’s faculty.
Embedded within the Computing priority is a focus on enhancing computational thinking education. The goal is to ensure every Duke student is computationally literate and can apply computational thinking across a broad range of ideas and problems.
This list of objectives, formed over more than three years of discussion at the top levels of university leadership, came from a sense that Duke needed to up its scientific game and build on a few core Duke strengths, “without trying to be everything to everybody,” Kennedy said.
“Science was the one area of Duke that was dramatically under-invested compared to other areas of Duke,” Kennedy said. “And if we didn't do it soon, and we didn't do it strategically, it might have a huge negative impact on Duke. We're a top 10 university, but we were lagging behind our peers. It was certainly clear that we had to really make significant new investments in these areas.”
The key to Duke’s scientific success in all of these areas is going to be a focus on discovery science -- studying nature not with a product in mind, but just to understand it, Kornbluth said.
“I always think about basic research like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’” Kornbluth said. “Like what could you have done therapeutically if we hadn't researched X, Y, and Z for many decades? Where would we be without fundamental basic science? Antiretroviral treatments for HIV, the mRNA vaccines for Covid -- the list goes on and on. If you take someone like Bob Lefkowitz, whose work has led to so many drugs, that came out of his simply wanting to understand how G-protein-coupled receptors worked,” she said.
To further the benefits of basic science to society, DST funding will also be used to support the newly expanded mission of the Office for Research and Innovation to help more of Duke’s discoveries reach the marketplace.
Beyond the Duke Endowment investment, another $150 million has been added to the effort so far, including a $23.75 million gift from Duke Trustee Ned Gilhuly and his wife Karen, and a $10 million gift from Trustee Eddy Cue and his wife Paula. Both gifts are aimed at recruiting star faculty and providing support for both students and faculty. A family foundation, the Charles LaFitte Foundation, has also contributed $5 million to support computing initiatives and an anonymous $1.6 million donation has been dedicated to the Duke Discovery Fund.
The discovery fund is a flexible funding source for recruiting top scientists. These hires are often highly competitive and require the resources to hire not just one person, but a whole team of co-workers, including other faculty, who are associated with that top scientist. That entire team needs tools, lab space and seed funding to get started at Duke.
Kornbluth said Duke’s research environment and its potential are attractive to the sorts of accomplished senior scientists who were hired in the first round of DST faculty recruiting. Pursuing highly promising younger researchers as DST recruitment moves forward will be a way to extend Duke’s expertise into the future and improve the overall diversity of the faculty.
“We’re interdisciplinary already, that's inherent in the way to work,” Kornbluth said, echoing one of the major themes of the effort. “But another thing is just that it’s a very collegial and collaborative place.”