Campus Conversation focuses on research at Stanford

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, as well as Kathryn Ann “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research, and Serena Rao, senior associate dean for finance and administration in the Dean of Research Office, focused on research – including the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19 – during an online conversation and Q&A with the Stanford community.

In an online conversation on Wednesday, Kathryn Ann “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research, said the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to research that will focus on helping humanity with the pressing issues facing people around the world.

“It’s not that people aren’t interested in foundational questions, or poetry just for the sake of poetry or just because it’s beautiful,” she said.

Clockwise from top left: Kam Moler, vice provost and dean of research; President Marc Tessier-Lavigne; Serena Rao, senior associate dean for finance and administration; Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“We want to hear about the stars just as much as we ever did, just because that’s part of what it means to be human. But I also see a real sense of urgency to be doing research – whether it’s technical research or social research or ethics research – that is going to help humanity with the real serious issues that we need to solve right now. I don’t want to say solve in this generation, because we don’t have a generation. The pandemic has highlighted that because it has made it personal. It’s not that it’s new. It’s just accelerated the trend.”

Among the issues Moler cited were social crises, such as racial injustice, social inequity and differential access to medical care.

“And above all, we need to address the impact that humans are having on the planet, which, if we don’t solve soon, we won’t be able to solve all of those other things,” she said.

At Stanford, Moler oversees five shared research facilities and Stanford’s 18 independent labs, institutes and centers, which span the life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering and medicine. She is optimistic about the future.

“I think it has been a really, really tough year, but I still think the future is bright for research,” she said.

During the Oct. 14 Campus Conversation, which focused on research, Moler was joined by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, and Serena Rao, senior associate dean for finance and administration in the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research.

They discussed a variety of topics during the conversation: the importance of fundamental and applied research, the changing funding landscape, democratizing access to shared resources and steps Stanford has taken in response to the pandemic.

The one-hour conversation was recorded and will be available to the Stanford community.

Fundamental and applied research

At the start of the conversation, Tessier-Lavigne said discoveries made by Stanford faculty, postdocs and students are crucial to advancing knowledge, and are one of the important ways that the university benefits society.

“Fundamental research is at the core of what we do,” he said. “It provides a wellspring of new ideas and helps us better understand both the natural world around us and the human condition. The pursuit of fundamental knowledge enriches the human experience. It also leads to some of the most transformative applications, often in unexpected ways.”

Since its inception, Stanford has also focused on applying new knowledge to tackle real-world problems, Tessier-Lavigne said. In recent years, the university has sought ways to accelerate that application by providing tools and infrastructure to researchers through initiatives developed under Stanford’s Long-Range Vision.

Tessier-Lavigne cited the work of Stanford professors Robert Wilson and Paul Milgrom – who received the 2020 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences this week for their work in auction theory – as a shining example of the ways in which both fundamental discovery and its application to practical solutions make enormous contributions to modern society.

“They’ve applied their theoretical discoveries to real-world market problems, designing new and better auction formats for complex economic situations,” he said. “Their work showcases why both forms of research are critically important.”

He said the university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic also demonstrates the ways in which Stanford research can benefit the world.

“Stanford’s response to the pandemic has involved hundreds of researchers from all seven of our schools, working together to address the medical, epidemiological and societal dimensions of COIVD-19 in more than 400 research projects that have launched since March.”

Research plans and priorities

During her presentation, Moler highlighted some of the major challenges that COVID-19 has presented to Stanford’s research operations, including limited access to research facilities, which has had varying impacts on different research and scholarship areas.

“It’s been difficult to constantly adapt to policies and practices to a changing regulatory environment, also to a changing public health environment and to changing understandings of what’s important and necessary to do,” she said.

Moler said one of the most challenging issues has been communicating the changing policies and practices in a timely manner.

Rao, who provides oversight for resource planning, financial operation, facilities management, human resources and research administration, said the Dean of Research Office has seen good adherence to the ground rules for preserving health and safety during the pandemic, including physical distancing, masking and using of Stanford Health Check.

She said that as of last Friday, about 250 campus facilities are open or partly open under limited access, and more than 3,600 people are currently working on campus, based on the number of people who submitted Health Checks last week.

“The recovery has been very smooth because of the precautions and responsible management that the schools and departments put in place,” Rao said.

Looking forward, Rao said the Office plans to continue increasing the variety of research activities on campus in the safest way possible.

“We also plan to communicate more locally and share with the community the “whys” behind Stanford’s policies,” she said.

During the Q&A, members of the Stanford community asked questions about a range of topics, including how research will change in the long run as a result of COVID-19; shared access to research platforms; and the impact of remote research on the careers of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

The conversation was moderated by Matthew Tiews, interim senior associate vice president for the arts, and associate vice president for campus engagement.