LSU hopes to diversify research funding sources

A year after taking over as LSU’s vice chancellor for research and development, K.T. Valsaraj says the university needs to continue to diversify its sources of research funding, but he says LSU is making strides in the STEM fields.

Valsaraj, who spoke to the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday, said LSU’s research funding is steady but relies heavily on funding from the federal government, which could be unpredictable in changing political climates.

“Our research portfolio is very vulnerable to the overall funding profile at the federal level,” he said. “We have to diversify our portfolio.”

Valsaraj, who has been at LSU for 28 years — previously serving as associate vice chancellor before his promotion last June — said he believes the university’s future is “incredibly bright” and he praised the leadership of LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander, who took over the university system in July.

“This is one of the first years that I see that LSU has significant cooperative efforts toward increasing research,” Valsaraj said.

Recently, the university took a strategic look at LSU’s strengths and developed a plan for research at LSU.

“We also looked at the needs of the state,” he said. “It’s very comprehensive.”

The university brings in about $150 million in outside research funding and contracts each year, much of that from the National Science Foundation, Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, Valsaraj said.

Now, LSU is investing in the identified focus areas by making large grant proposals and organizing centers or institutes that focus on them, he said.

“We all know that high-performing research universities are the key to paving the way for real change,” Valsaraj said.

He said the effort already is “bearing fruit.”

“We have generated quite a bit of research dollars already, just in the last six months,” he said.

Valsaraj said those efforts include shifting some research focus toward private industry. He used energy as an example, noting that Baton Rouge and Louisiana have high concentrations of energy interests.

“The research portfolio at LSU doesn’t reflect some of those things,” he said. “I would like to model LSU after the very best, like MIT, which has a very healthy relationship with nearly every important industry you can think of.”

He said it takes hiring the best faculty and honing in on industry interests, which LSU is now working toward with its strategic plan.

Valsaraj said LSU is working to lure more students into STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“STEM fields face a disturbing lack of interest in the K-12 and beyond,” he said. “When students are not well trained in the early stages of their educational careers, they don’t feel confident enough to pursue such studies.”

The Journal of Chemical Education recently named LSU the top university in the nation in granting doctorate degrees in chemistry to women and underrepresented minorities.

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