The third letter to MRI Community in this series of Witnessing and Learning from Crisis considers Impact


Monday, April 6, 2020

Dear all,

Within a few recent weeks, the university has adapted to a completely different operational mode to serve our communities. We have risen to the crisis.  Examples of this are the launching of new research initiatives directed at COVID-19 in the form of three rounds of seed grants. Here, MRI partnered with the other institutes -- Huck, SSRI, IEE, and ICDS. We have mainly supported efforts in virus diagnostics to aid rapid testing and nano-aerosol technologies for targeted drug delivery to combat lung tissue inflammation.

From an education and service perspective, MRI and the NSF MRSEC have led a multi-university effort with University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, and University of Minnesota, providing three Zoom lectures per week on details of materials characterization and data analytics. Last Friday, over a thousand participants joined the lecture. Thanks to many for this, but a special call out to Jeff Shallenberger on the MCL staff for driving the “Making the Best of a Bad Situation: A Characterization Seminar Series”.

Then there is a large interdisciplinary team involved in the immediate medical needs for Hershey and local medical, police, and emergency services under the Manufacturing and Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC) that continues to provide impact in the delivery and coordination of services at record pace

The University, Technical Innovation, and Economic Impact

The research mission of a university is to be a major contributor to the knowledge and discovery that drives important innovations and our understanding of the complexity of society and its needs.  Innovation and discovery have led to many products that underpin our modern society, including internet, wireless communications, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, increased food supply, efficient batteries, power electronics, robotics, renewable energy, etc. These have all been enabled by the basic science investments from federal agencies, including NIH, NSF, DOE, and NASA, and translated into strengthening the U.S. private sector and advancing human well-being. 

Economists, policy makers, and the National Research Council have all pointed to the importance of R&D as a driver of technology and U.S. economic growth. The technology progress supported by R&D enhances the productivity of businesses and drives employment in new sectors, such as biotechnology and energy. In one study that considered the U.S. and four other countries, the authors estimated that about 50% of economic growth correlated to enhanced R&D investments from 1954 to 1993.1-4  Similar to the enhancement of R&D under the stimulus plan after the great recession of 2008, I believe and hope we will again see an increase in funding for R&D, but I believe there will be more of an applied component to assure a faster return on investment to drive  impact and  jobs. More emphasis on spending to promote new technologies will be required. Recent studies show it is not a given that all new technologies, including artificial intelligence, will lead to even outcomes in employment and be of benefit to a broad swath of society. Controversial technologies, such as fracking and deep-ocean drilling, have had mixed outcomes and can offer lessons for directing research expenditures, not to mention thoughtful regulation. The economy and GNP are not the same as society.

The United States has slipped to 29th among the nations that fund R&D activities. Companies have largely lost their basic research, so one anticipates a translational push on the best ideas that are still developing in the universities. The National Science Foundation’s recent program on Advanced Manufacturing, which supports basic research to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, is already a clue towards enhancing translational research, as pointed out in my last letter.

The public awareness of the necessity of science and data-driven policy is, hopefully, being advanced for those watching the Covid-19 briefings. After all, how often has there been such a captive audience for medical and epidemiological science as that communicated by Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx (who is our own Penn State Hershey-educated alum).

Citation Culture and its Discontents

In the last twenty years, scientific impact and value have been distorted with citation indices. The most famous is the so-called Hirsch index, that quantifies citations of an author’s publications. The H-index’s value may be to note individual contributions to knowledge, but it’s value poorly correlates to economic or societal value. When you talk to industrial scientists about this, they often ignore H-factors. The business community is more interested in a new phenomenon or material with a path to a 10x property improvement. This is pragmatic but also undisputable. Among administrators, faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars, impact factor drives so many decisions: where to publish, how frequently to publish, hiring and tenure, etc. We have lost perspective in terms of this type of quantification of scholarship. There have also been pressures that publishing houses have exploited by this misguided metric. Academics, being in a competitive environment, are forced to buy into them. This H-index culture created a hunger to increase publication citations and led to huge profits for high-impact journals.

University researchers have a responsibility to report science so others can have access to this knowledge that could drive further societal value. Yet, sequestered behind paywalls and costly subscriptions, knowledge is hoarded for profit.

We are now at a situation where universities, national laboratories, and companies are paying out multimillion-dollar subscriptions, and individual investigators are having to budget for higher and higher publication costs on federal grants. Some journals are charging up to $5000 for one publication. This impacts funding that could be spent on science itself. Or to take another perspective, $5000 would allow a family of seven in the African country of Chad to live for a year. We have to get a handle on the publication and communication of scientific data. The University of California last year challenged the publication contract process. Their admirable stand could be a path to a much better partnership with publishing houses and lead to the wider dissemination of scientific research that in turn can drive innovation and discovery.

A Broader Reflection on Impact

As I reflect on H-factors and think of societal impact, I recall there was an earlier H-factor that was introduced by Rustum Roy, the founder of the Materials Research Laboratory at Penn State in 1960, which was the first interdisciplinary materials laboratory. In 1979, he wrote a book with an intriguing title: “Experimenting with the Truth.” That book has within it an interesting alternative h-factor, the human impact factor.  It goes like this

If we update forty years or so, we may push climate change to the top of the list, and also additional concerns, such as cyber security, educational opportunity, income inequality, and various forms of terrorism. Our human-related problems are largely correlated to the unsustainable growth of population. I must say that, despite the simplicity of this Human Factor Index, it provides a very profound list of priorities that impact society. The data reflect similar concepts to the grand challenges, big ideas, and sustainability goals previously mentioned. We must never lose sight of these basic human needs, as without attention to them our whole society could be lost.


Embrace of Our Mission

As we are a Land Grant University built from the service culture embedded in the Morell Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln, I naturally revisit his words of wisdom that can translate to this current crisis: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  I believe a modern view of the land grant mission will serve us well.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a verse by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (A Psalm of Life, 1838):

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.


Take care, think, plan, and be strong,

Clive Randall


Acknowledgement: Thanks to Darryl Faber and Walt Mills for editorial help.



1. National Science Foundation, National Patterns of R&D Resources: 2008 Data Update, Table 4-2. 3. Griliches, Zvi. 1992.

2. “The Search for R&D Spillovers.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, vol. 94 (Suppl.), pp. S29-S47.

3. Jones, Charles I. 2002. “Sources of U.S. Economic Growth in a World of Ideas.” American Economic Review, vol. 92, no. 1 (March), pp. 220- 239. Research intensity is defined as “the fraction of the labor force that works to produce ideas.” The four other nations used to construct the research intensity measure are France, West Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

4. Jones, Charles I. and John C. Williams. 1998. “Measuring the Social Return to R&D.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 113, no. 4 (November), pp. 1119-1135. One should note that the authors’ results depend, in part, on the assumption that the economy-wide rate of return to R&D is 30 percent while the private rate of return is between 7 and 14 percent. In many ways, measuring the degree of underinvestment in R&D in the United States is more difficult than measuring the economy-wide rate of return to R&D.