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When money walks: How GW lost a Google project but still draws other top-tier researchers

Sophie McTear
Sophie McTear

When Google chose research teams to help create a smartphone with 3-D mapping capabilities, the tech giant decided to work with just two schools – the University of Minnesota and GW.

But only months into the partnership, one of GW’s leading researchers decided to move on, and took his Google project, nine graduate students and the $1.2 million grant with him across the country. It gave the University a glimpse at what it’s like to work with the most sought-after tech company in the world, and what happens when researchers don’t have strong ties to GW.

The money, and prestige, walks. That’s just one growing pain experts say GW may increasingly experience as it looks to elevate its research profile.

The University has hired dozens of faculty from top research institutions over the past several years, bettering its chances for growing its grant total. But with that change comes added pressure: Top talent, if not coddled enough, can leave.

“There are more higher-quality students and colleagues to work with,” said Gabe Sibley, the lead researcher for the Google project, about his move to the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It’s a better school,” he said, adding that he also wanted to be closer to his family.

But overall, the more common GW story is one of money walking onto campus from new hires. Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said he could only recall three researchers, including Sibley, who have left campus with high-profile grants during his six years at the University.

“Relatively few people leave here, and the reason’s pretty simple – we’re on this trajectory,” he said. “The reputation of this University in every aspect has gone up higher and higher and higher.”

For every $1 that leaves, $10 comes in, he said. GW is increasingly looking to hire professors that already have a substantial amount of funding, which means it will lure those faculty away from other campuses.

“Our general principle is we’re going to replace that person in that area. We want to get somebody who’s better than who left,” Chalupa said. “No university in the country would bring in somebody without a grant if they’re in a field where they can get grants.”

Hiring a star professor
At least five recent hires have brought more than $2.3 million in research grants with them from other institutions. Those hires have increased GW’s annual research spending – a figure that last year grew 11 percent, which was more than what officials had expected.

Chalupa said institutes award the grants to the university and not the professor, but universities almost never try to keep the money when the primary researcher leaves.

“For that grant to be done, you need that person’s specializations,” he said. “There’s kind of an understanding among universities that you got the grant and even though you’re leaving, we legally could keep the grant. But the understanding is you can take it with you.”

Media Credit: Lydia Francis | Hatchet Photographer
A lab in Tompkins Hall was reassigned after a researcher working with Google left GW, taking his $1.2 million grant with him. But many professors have left other universities and brought grants to GW.

Taylor Maxwell, a research professor who came to GW last year from the University of Texas, said staffers in the research office were quick to help him fill out complex paperwork with the National Institutes of Health to transfer his grants.

Maxwell said his ability to bring his own funding made him an attractive candidate for the University, but he said he wouldn’t describe himself as a “big shot” when it comes to securing research grants. He brought over $270,000 with him in the move, and he now works at GW’s Computational Biology Institute.

“Showing that you’ve gotten funding is probably the primary thing you would look for, besides ‘Do you fit?’ and ‘Are you a decent person?,’” he said.

Shahram Majidi, a researcher at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said when he left the University of Minnesota, he had to prove to the American Heart Association that GW would be able to provide the resources necessary to complete the project funded by his $154,000 grant.

“We were able to convince the AHA that we had the appropriate level of professionalism and the capability to run this research,” he said.

When a star turns into a cautionary tale
Stein Sture, the vice chancellor for research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said universities sometimes fiercely compete for the same top researchers. More turnover nationwide, with faculty taking their grants with them to different institutions, has created a research-fueled arms race.

He said start-up packages offered to new faculty hires can help persuade the recruits to choose one institution over another.

“It sometimes becomes a bidder’s war,” he said. “The faculty member may express a wish for it and say, ‘If you promise to double the size of my lab, if you help with this and recruit students… then the department chair will get some additional support for the first year.'”

Sibley, an emerging figure in the robotics field, has guest lectured on campuses across the nation. Other experts agreed that while departures like Sibley’s aren’t uncommon, for a school trying to boost its research reputation, it has to offer a lucrative package or show the professor that the university is on a path that he or she would want to be associated with.

Sibley said GW had “competitive” start-up packages, but that he ultimately decided to leave for a combination of personal reasons and the chance to take advantage of more tailored resources at Colorado’s facilities.

“They’ve been able to attract top talent, and they give their young faculty an opportunity to grow and they support their young faculty effectively, so that is all very good,” he said.

Juan Falquez, one of the students who transferred with Sibley, said workers in the lab quadrupled over the course of two years, and that there weren’t enough resources for the group to complete their work at GW. When projects get underway, researchers tend to move quickly.

“SEAS has made monumental changes in the past few years, and compared to before, things seem to be heading in the right direction,” he said. “This change of mentality, however, takes some time.”

GW’s involvement in Google’s Project Tango was featured in the Washington Post and other major media outlets. GW is still listed as a partner on the official Project Tango website, though it hasn’t been updated since the announcement of the project in February. Google did not return multiple requests for comment.

Expecting star-quality returns
The addition of “star researchers” can improve not only a program’s reputation, but also the quality of research produced by other faculty members, said Alex Oettl, a professor of strategic management at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“The top 20 percent of scientists contribute about 80 percent of all knowledge,” he said. “It makes departments much more productive to have these scientists that are these stars, and are able to attract better people to the institution.”

When Chalupa came to GW, he created a formula to determine start-up packages for luring top professors to Foggy Bottom. That can include money to get a lab off the ground, machines needed for specific types of research and funds to hire research assistants.

But when GW invests in a professor with a start-up package, Chalupa said he expects returns.

“People get start-up packages that could be half a million dollars or more. It depends what they need, but that’s the University’s investment in them,” he said. “Our expectation is, within a certain period of time, that the money will be recouped.”

The amount GW doles out each year in hiring packages will likely increase as its decade-long strategic plan calls for recruiting up to 100 top-tier faculty members.

GW has ambitious research goals: Aside from the expectation of world-class research inside its $275 million, state-of-the-art Science and Engineering Hall that will open this spring, officials want to have as many as 10 research centers launched by 2021.

Officials will rely on donations to meet many of those goals, and the University plans to put at least $154.5 million from its $1 billion fundraising campaign toward research.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said GW has to choose between hiring faculty with big names in research or investing in younger professors with potential.

“You don’t exactly know which junior faculty are going to excel,” Garris, an engineering professor, said. “But if you hire somebody that’s already established, that has a great reputation and big funding and brings some of that funding to the University. This is a way of quickly elevating the status.”

Julia Arciga, Colleen Murphy and Genevieve Tarino contributed reporting.

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