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Indy Q+A: DRI President Kumud Acharya on increasing research funding, dealing with a pandemic and what comes next

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis

Of Nevada’s eight higher education institutions, one is not quite like the rest. With faculty funded entirely by outside grant dollars and contract money, the Desert Research Institute teaches no students and confers no degrees. Instead, it specializes in just what the name suggests: research. 

Even so, the pandemic did not spare DRI from its wide-reaching effects. The Nevada Independent sat down with DRI President Kumud Acharya to break down how COVID affected research in the midst of ongoing climate, weather and resource challenges, as well as what could come next for the state’s sole research institution. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Nevada Independent: When we think of what COVID did to universities, what COVID did to higher ed, we think in terms of throwing teaching online. But obviously DRI is much different from the rest of NSHE, so how did research operations here change because of the pandemic? What has the last year and a half looked like for DRI?

DRI President Kumud Acharya: Let me start out by saying how DRI is different from other institutions — DRI is an Environmental Research Institute. Our mission is research. So, while we are the only institute that only focuses on resources within NSHE, during COVID, we were impacted like any other institution. But what we did was we — our focus was to let our critical research continue while we closed our campus for everybody else. And so those who had to be on campus were on campus, doing their research. 

So our research operation was impacted, but the spirit of our impactful science continued; we were able to continue our research. Most people were also able to work from home quite effectively. And since we don't teach, we were able to continue our work. So, although we were impacted, [it was] probably not as much as other NSHE institutions.

Okay, so when we talk about those impacts, I'm curious about field work or collaboration with researchers outside the U.S. That's been one thing that's been slow to recover as vaccinations have allowed other aspects of the research process to come back, so how reliant is DRI on that sort of international research, and what's your expectation that that's going to come back anytime soon?

Because, obviously, we couldn't travel, our scientists couldn't travel, so that part of research was on hold. That's a small part of what we do — although we do work on all seven continents of this planet. You have to go abroad to collect samples, sometimes. There are so many other things, aspects of research that you have to do in-house, sitting in your office — writing a model or analyzing data, writing manuscripts — that all continued. 

Being in the field was not possible. I had a team of scientists who were preparing to go to Greenland, and they were actually almost ready to go. We had gotten permission and everything and NSF (National Science Foundation) was going to fly them to Greenland on a military jet, but they had to cancel, last minute. So that impacted, but overall I think that our research, other aspects of research and the research that is going on here in Nevada and in this country, continued.

A big function of the return to 100 percent capacity on campus has been an acknowledgement of what could not be accomplished remotely, or other in-person experiences that were lost. In short, there's a lot you can do in person that you can't do over a computer screen. Would you say that's also true of DRI?

I will flip that. We didn't know how much we could do from home before the pandemic. Now, we've discovered. So I think the new normal is going to be a little bit different. You know, there are many, many of our scientists and staff who could still be as effective [remotely] as they were, if they were on campus. So I think that's going to change a little bit. Some of our faculty will be just fine working part of their doing part of their work from home going forward.

What kind of impact did the pandemic have on DRI’s grant funding, if it had one at all? 

Oh, it did. And to some level, to complete our existing grants and contracts because we had to postpone some of our field work. We couldn't, for example, have more than one person in a car, and we had to have multiple vehicles for the same work. So that impacted our funding level. We had to put more money into field work, for example. But it also opened up new opportunities for DRI that we hadn't thought of before — for example, health sciences research. There was definitely a financial impact, but it opened up new avenues, so I'm also kind of excited to look for new areas, new opportunities.

Before the pandemic, DRI had signaled that it would pursue a funding formula change at the Legislature in 2021. Obviously, that was postponed until the next session in 2023, but if lawmakers were to revisit the institute’s formula, why do you believe it should be changed? 

So, we are, first of all, extremely grateful for the funding that we get from the state. That allows us to basically do what we do, which is to bring additional dollars to DRI. Every dollar that the state gives us, we are able to convert that into $4.82. And that additional money comes from outside of [Nevada], so we're helping the state in economic development as well. 

Right now, roughly 15 percent of DRI's funding comes from the state. The rest, everything else, comes from outside, in grants and contracts that our scientists write proposals [for] and bring those dollars to DRI. So if you look at the cost benefit ratio, $1 converts into $4.82 — the less money we get from the state, the less we're competitive to bring more money to the state.

So when we talk about a revision to the formula, are you talking about increasing the percentage of the pie of state funding, or increasing the pie as a whole, i.e. more money at the end of the day? 

Let me go back a little bit to this funding formula that we have right now, was decided by legislators, I think it was in 2013. (DRI’s funding formula was approved by lawmakers in 2013, but it did not take effect until 2015.) And so the funding formula as it is right now, it's really, really important for DRI, the money that we get. But I think that the reason we want to revisit this funding formula that you've heard, we've talked about and the legislative session in other venues, is because we want to be growing the Institute, and so revisiting this funding formula would allow us to continue to grow. 

And is the hope still that you’ll revisit it in 2023? 

That's our hope. 

There are signals now that lawmakers could be re-examining community college funding in 2023, and as a cascading result of that, funding for four-year institutions, too. How do you ensure that DRI remains in those discussions as legislators discuss other major parts of the higher education budget? 

I'd like everyone to understand that DRI is a resource for the state. It's a resource, one, because we do this cutting edge science here that impacts communities, that benefits Nevadans — our scientists do incredible work here at DRI, they come to try to do this great amazing science, and so we're so proud of the work that we do at DRI that impacts the communities, the Nevadans, and also, our research is global. We're so proud that this incredible, important environmental research institute [is] located in Nevada, and so we feel like the value that we bring to the state in terms of economic benefit in terms of impact that we make, and it merits some discussion. 

When we talk about expanding DRI, especially through increased funding, what does that expansion look like? 

So, we have hundreds of different research going on at DRI at any time. Let me give you a few specific examples of what our focus is right now: weather, climate, fire and water resources issues. DRI has one of the six regional climate centers in the country funded by NOAA. It's called Western Regional Climate Center. It's been housed here since the ‘80s. So we have data, weather related data, that anybody can have access to, live data for 11 Western states in the country. So the data that we have, the work we do in that area is incredibly important, there is no limit to how far we can go in that area. 

Talk about fire, I mean, there's been so many fire incidents in the Western United States in the last few years. DRI's work on fire, we were developing models to understand how the fire behaves in a particular situation, how that fire impacts the community around that fire, how that fire impacts firefighters. We're sending out drones to collect quality samples over fire, to look at the quality of the air. 

There's so much more we can do [with] water, the water resources issue in the Western United States. It's really, really severe, and the work that we do at DRI — did you know that DRI has more than 40 hydrologist experts in water? Just DRI, more than 40. So the work that we're doing on water is so important. And so, how much more can we do regionally and globally? It's limitless. So I think the impact of our work, that's why it's not only felt in Nevada, but also in the entire western region and globally.

I wanted to ask about SB287, which formalizes land grant university status for both UNLV and DRI in state statute. During the legislative session, we heard a lot of testimony from and about UNLV and UNR, but how does this new land-grant-status affect DRI? 

It broadens federal opportunities, grant opportunities for DRI. I'm looking forward to tapping into the additional resources that are now available.

And when we talk about the land-grant grant opportunities, those are specific to the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

That is one that I'm aware of. There could be others that I think we need to do more investigation [on].

So how involved was DRI in discussions of SB287? 

We weren't, just focused on research. 

And when we talk about research in this context, we're talking about research funding through grants?

Grants and contracts. We were just too busy doing our fire, water and weather research here at DRI.

Of the research we've been talking about —  fire, climate, weather, water — where does agriculture fit into this? Because certainly that's a big function of land grant status.

Yeah, and we do have [that]. I, actually, was involved in a USDA-funded project in the past, a collaborative project with UNLV and SNWA looking at the impact of sewage irrigation on vegetation such as like, you know, tomatoes and spinach, and we're looking at those plants, whether they're able to take up some of those untreated contaminants if they were used. 

And so that was funded by USDA, and DRI does have USDA-funded research; we do have scientists in the Reno area involved in USDA-funded research. We have an amazing greenhouse in the Reno campus called ECOCELLs; it was built by funding from [the National Science Foundation] back in the day. We can actually simulate all kinds of different agricultural products there, and this is a controlled environment, we can even look at greenhouse gas emission and carbon sequestration, all that. So we do have some agriculture related research at DRI.

In the political discussion surrounding SB287, DRI was not involved? 

Not at all. 

As we come out of the worst of the pandemic, we’re still seeing a fairly significant spread, especially in Nevada. What is the expectation that DRI can get “back to normal” sometime in the next six months, and more broadly, what would “normal” look like? 

The normal, for me, is all our scientists working here without any concerns, being able to do the research. That is, that is what normal looks like to me. What's going to happen in six months is anybody's guess. You don't know, I don't know, nobody knows. So I'm hopeful that this pandemic is, or will be under control over time, and then we will get back to doing our business and our scientists are freely able to travel, go to their field, whether it's from Greenland or in Australia or China wherever they need to go, and that's what normal looks like to me. And I can't wait for that day to come.

Part of the “getting back to normal” conversation has centered on the role of vaccines. There’s no clear legal path to a mandate for faculty to get the vaccine, so what is the impetus on the DRI administration to ensure faculty get vaccinated? 

We've encouraged all our faculty and staff to get vaccinated. That's all we can do. We can encourage them to get vaccinated. We're not pushing anybody to get vaccines, so I think that we, I'd like to think we've done well.

Going back to the issue of research funding, we’re at least two years away from any possible increase in state money. So in the interim, what happens on the institutional side to pursue more money, to increase the pie as it exists now? 

Our job as administrators is to facilitate our faculty to write grants and contracts, to respond to [Requests for Proposal], to pursue and look for new opportunities. And we do that a number of ways, you know, we sometimes—our administrators have, themselves, been looking for opportunities. We also have the DRI foundation, [which] sometimes helps us by raising some money that then goes to faculty that would allow them to pursue new opportunities by providing seed funding … So there are a number of ways we're bringing help to our faculty. 

Right now, 85 percent of DRI's funding comes from grants and contracts. So I think additional help from the state would be tremendously helpful, and we're incredibly always grateful for the resources that we get from the state — but we are trying and doing our best, and our faculty are incredibly entrepreneurial in nature, and are very good at it because they get their salary from grants and contracts. They don't get their salary from the state. And because of that, our faculty are cutting edge. 

I’d like to ask about diversity at DRI, and more specifically how the institute has pursued diversity as an end unto itself, and where it could go from here? 

I’m very passionate about [diversity]. You know, we worked on a five-year strategic plan last year, and the core values of our strategic plan is impactful science community and diversity. That's even before the pandemic. And so in the next five years, we're going to be working very hard on improving our diversity. We established the idea committee almost 18 months ago here at DRI, and the goal of that idea committee is that it then allows us to have that brave conversation that we ought to be having here, and looking at policies, how do we change that and how do we make our place more inclusive. 

And so the committee [is] running a number of programs — we have a colloquium series where we invite experts to give presentations on diversity, we have interactive seminars where we can share in personal situations where we can share how we educate our faculty. We have also done a climate survey recently to understand what people are thinking about diversity. So, there is so much more we need to do, but it's really important for us not only our faculty, but also our staff. So my goal is to increase our diversity, be more inclusive, make this place a very healthy place where everybody is respectful of another person, and people feel good to come to work every day. There's so much more work to do, and DRI is no different than any other place here.

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