Delving into the future of research at CWRU with VP Michael Oakes


Courtesy of CWRU

Taking his new position as VP for research and technology management by the reins, Michael Oakes is working to help CWRU’s researchers.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

Case Western Reserve University is not just a university: it is a research university, and a good one at that. CWRU’s central mission is not just to instruct students but also to produce knowledge so that future generations may also be educated. Being a top 20 private research university in terms of expenditure on research and development, a huge draw of coming to CWRU is being around professors and researchers at the top of their field. The CWRU website heavily promotes this fact, noting that “99% of [CWRU] undergrads take part in experiential learning, including research, co-ops and internships” and that 16 Nobel laureates are affiliated with CWRU in some way, including Albert Michelson of the famous Michelson-Morley experiment.

As such, it was no surprise when President Eric Kaler came to CWRU promising to increase the university’s research expenditures and portfolio, especially considering he is a chemical engineer by trade with 10 patents and over 200 peer-reviewed papers to his name. In previous conversations with The Observer, he impressed the importance of building a more efficient apparatus to extract funds out of the federal government for research endeavors, and focusing on future-looking fields such as artificial intelligence and reducing climate change. A key part of this agenda was the creation of a new position at CWRU to oversee all research here: the senior vice president for research and technology management. In the words of President Kaler, “We’ve never had a person whose job it is to wake up every morning, thinking ‘How do I move the research agenda of Case Western Reserve forward,’ so that’s going to be a big effort.”

But what does the job entail? And who is the man now in charge of moving that research agenda forward?

To answer those questions, The Observer sat down with Dr. J. Michael Oakes, who was hired by President Kaler to be CWRU’s first senior vice president for research and technology management in May 2022. Having come from the University of Minnesota (UMN), just as President Kaler did, he was able to get right to work in July 2022. After seven months on the job, he has plenty of reflections to share. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

So this job is a new position at CWRU and a big part of President Kaler’s agenda. What can you tell me about what the job means, what it entails and how you feel about it?

So every big research university has a vice president for research or something related, generally called the senior research officer. And at the big places, they tend to report directly to the president [of the university]. Here at CWRU, prior to President Kaler, the job reported to the provost, so you don’t get the access to the big boss. Eric Kaler changed that. And so with his agenda to substantially grow the research enterprise, having a person—in this case me—report directly to him to execute on his vision, the job is to, obviously, substantially grow the research enterprise, but [also] to help the faculty and the systems they interface with be better. Which is to say, less friction for faculty to get interesting grants for whatever they’re working on, to make sure that the research administration part of the house—the bureaucracy—is as efficient and good working and compliant as possible. To make sure that our faculty and our research community has access to resources they need, whether it’s a machine or some new grant opportunity from the federal government or other sources. And so my job is, in some metaphorical way, cultivating an organization, a garden, where people can thrive, the researchers can thrive. That’s my job.

So what are those inefficiencies that needed to be tackled when you came in?

A researcher, often a professor, wants to get a grant from the federal government. There are so many technical things that need to be done to get that grant submitted, much like a tax return. There are all kinds of rules and regulations. A researcher themself should not be expected to know all those nuanced rules and regulations. I want her to be creative, and doing science or whatever else she’s working on. So the bureaucracy begins with having the properly trained, properly empowered people that the researcher herself interfaces with to submit the grant. Then, of course, we might get the grant. And then there’s a bureaucracy around getting the money, getting it over to the researcher herself, so she can spend the money, hire our research team—maybe some students—and maybe a new machine or a computer or something fancy, so she can do the research.

There may be travel involved, subcontracts with other universities and compliance issues. Certain things are regulated very heavily such as nuclear material and interactions with human subjects. And we have to balance costs and speeds along with the bureaucracy. If people aren’t working together, all that friction makes you just want to cry. My job is to minimize that.

Speaking of grants from the federal government, you’re coming in at a moment where the federal government is pumping in billions more dollars into research and scientific technology than they have in decades. Are you seeing the effects of that?

We’re seeing the beginning of those effects. So the money is not yet available, but it’s coming. And so there’s two things, how do we as an institution get [funding] as much as we can for the greater good. It’s a competitive process in America—you don’t just get money because you are CWRU or Stanford—you compete with other researchers. So we have to make it so that our talented researchers have the tools they need and the support they need to seek and receive the money, and then actually spend it. That’s the research friction stuff. So the money’s available in unprecedented amounts. But every other researcher and every other big university is as hungry for it as our people are. And so it’s a competition and I need to make sure that our people can favorably compete.

I don’t know how familiar you are with CWRU history but we federated specifically in 1969 to receive grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that we otherwise would’ve had to compete for, so that competition has always been there.

It’s always a driving force. I mean, it’s a research university. It’s not a college. And so research is a big part of what we do and hopefully the model is, stemming from the Germans so many years ago, that the students benefit by working with faculty and sitting in a classroom with faculty who are cutting edge researchers. The thing I was taught, as a young undergrad at a research institution, was that your teacher is writing the textbook, not teaching the textbook. That’s what we try to cultivate around here.

So you have a PhD in sociology and have taught courses in research methods and ethics, along with social epidemiology. How does that shape your perspective?

I had a fascinating graduate school education. I was interested intellectually in how social forces drove health. I found a program that let me do epidemiology, sociology and economics: the social forces that drive health. And I got interested in ‘how do we know what we know,’ which is research methodology, statistics and related things. A couple aspects of that training in my career I think are helpful. One, I was always instinctively interdisciplinary. I am a person who thinks about questions and anyone who can help answer the question is welcome. Health isn’t just medicine. It isn’t just social norms, or economic forces or policy. It’s all of it. So I generally bring all these perspectives, as much as I can, to a question and then learn from others. So I’ve always tried to read and act widely. Much to my surprise, that approach has been useful as a university administrator, because I got to know the languages, the cultures and the interests of various subfields from biomedicine to statistics, to mathematics, to biology, to the social sciences and even some [of the] humanities. That I think helps me see the different professors’ perspectives easier.

It must have been an interesting time to be a social epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a university administrator at UMN, when lots of grants were coming in from the federal government for anything related to public health and COVID-19.

We were growing 30% [in research grants]—terrific growth, for lots of reasons. So we have this scary time where things are shaking, but yet there’s more and more money coming in, and more success happening, certainly in certain areas. So that’s where the leadership thing came in. How does one navigate that moment of, we’re shutting down this lab, and that lab is going gangbusters. That’s what my day was every day.

Those decisions must be difficult to make, yet you have to prioritize a research portfolio today. How do you do that?

I think my job is about setting the stage for the faculty and researchers. My job is to make sure they have all the tools, they have as little friction and they have as much knowledge and support as possible. If a professor wants to study question X or Y, that’s up to them. I want to make sure if they want to study question X, they can effectively. But I have some influence in how I spend my strategic budget. I want to incentivize sustainable manufacturing. I want to sustainably incentivize artificial intelligence. Well, that means I’m not incentivizing something else. These are the decisions a leader has to make every day. 

Certain departments do get funded more just because their research is more expensive.

For better or worse, research universities are often judged or ranked on the total amount of money they spend on research. The NSF tracks this. And so like it or not, everybody gets ranked. And so we want to maintain higher ranking in the big game. And like every other ranking, there are flaws, but the rankings are the rankings and you don’t want to fall too far behind, or you lose prestige.

What made you want to come to CWRU? What do you think of CWRU today?

I had the privilege of working…with President Kaler at UMN. I just became a fan of his as a leader. He’s a decisive leader who I think really understands what a research university is and must do in society. It’s a very special institution and he deeply gets it. So I got to work with him there and then when he came here. I was, in my moment of life, ready to seek an alternative. I was having a good run in UMN. But I sent him a letter and said, ‘I’d like to come [to CWRU].’ We talked and went through the whole process of selection. After a couple of interviews here, I would have been deeply disappointed had I not got the job. I mean, there’s so much to do. So much tremendous opportunity and so much talent. I was excited, and knowing [Kaler] professionally I thought would give him and me an advantage. We don’t have to get to know each other. I kind of know his jam. He knows my strengths and weaknesses. And so we could go faster; there’s no two or three years getting to know each other and we could immediately hit the ground running and hopefully help CWRU.

Going back, I am struck at the talent around CWRU from amazing faculty to some amazing students. Obviously, there needs to be some work. Some of the infrastructure–the lab buildings and such—are obviously dated. I think that some of our relationships with our fellow institutions can be better optimized for win-wins. That includes the hospital systems, corporations, the federal government and even [the] local government.

Speaking of partnerships, a lot of research includes private partnerships, public partnerships and a lot of intellectual property. What role does CWRU have in terms of managing our own commercialization capacities? How do we make sure that our research benefits the public to the greatest extent?

So, the basic model is that the research university does the knowledge discovery and that some of that becomes scaled up for use—that’s the transfer, or commercialization, part of it. We have a Technology Transfer Office that reports to me, and they do things on IP, they do things on finding ways for this new device, drug, whatever it might be, to…people who can scale—typically other companies. Universities aren’t good and should not be good at scaling stuff up for production. Companies of various forms take that and run with it to hopefully save people’s lives, whether it’s a vaccine or a safer car, whatever it might be. So we think a lot about that. I’d like CWRU to have more opportunities for small business and technology incubation, a bit of a nursery if you will, for proto-businesses to get going. Part of my agenda is to have more space, more initiatives and more investment in technology transfer, which means maybe a building to do it. It means, as well, connecting with venture capitalists and corporations who might bring in investment to further things along, then maybe buy it and scale it and help people live better lives. That’s part of what a research university does. Every big place does it. We’re pretty good at it here. I need to make it go even better.

There are plans for a new research center on the Case Quad, which might give some of that new space. What can you tell me about that?

That’s the forthcoming Interdisciplinary Science and Education Building or ISEB. It’s an absolute necessity for this university and for its research enterprise. We’re going to spend about $300 million and take about 200,000 square feet. As far as design, we want to have more openness with the MLK Drive across the street so CWRU becomes more open to its community neighbors, and to make the Quad more inviting. So the architects are trying to work out how to do both those things and have a bunch of labs. What interests me in my role is the inside of the building and the social processes. How many wet labs? How many dry labs? It’s not going to be a teaching building, per se. Of course, at a research university students hopefully learn by participating in research so there’s some overlap. But it’s not classroom space. It’s obviously mostly science and engineering, but what does that mean? Whole departments won’t go there, but rather research teams. One of the questions that is on my desk is how do we put the research teams in the right part of the building so they interact, collide, mash up, learn and benefit from one another. You don’t want all the chemists on the fourth floor and the engineers on the first floor. You got to kind of mix them up a little bit.

That departmental segregation sounds like our current science buildings.

Right, but this is what a modern science and engineering building looks like. This should merely be the next important thing at CWRU. We have to build more of these kinds of spaces for students and for research and all this stuff to grow and thrive as a university. So I’m already thinking about the next building in my head. President Kaler wants to cut the ribbon in the fall of 2026, which is the bicentennial for CWRU. 

I think one of the fascinating themed ideas about a building like this is that we’re not only building it for ourselves, but for those who will follow us. This building, hopefully, will be productive for 75 years. So how do we imagine what those who will follow will need in the upcoming decades. I’m in love with that idea. I’ve always been in awe of people who started putting stones together for some sort of cathedral, knowing they wouldn’t finish it. And those who would pick up the last stone knowing that they didn’t start it.

Speaking of legacy, what do you hope to leave behind at CWRU?

Look, I’d like to be able to build some things and reduce the friction, help with the building, help with the incubator, help with faculty and students. But I’ll tell you what I really would like people to say: “Michael Oakes cared.” It seems so corny. But, I care about research, I care about the community, I care about health disparities. That’s my heart. So the building is great, but what I’m trying to do is to say that a place like CWRU—a research university—can, hopefully through my leadership, have a more positive impact on human flourishing. That’s really the goal. Caring.