Penn State’s research expenditures surpassed $1 billion in 2019-20. This milestone—which puts Penn State in a select group of research universities—reflects the university’s commitment to groundbreaking 4.0 industry research in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology. It’s also testament to their strategic sponsored partnerships with companies like Merck, Lockheed Martin, PPG, Volvo, CSL Behring, Wabtec, Corning, Dow and Morgan Advanced Materials—companies whose products are making an impact on Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world, thanks to their work with Penn State.

In addition to working with industry leaders, Penn State researchers also work closely with 15 federal agencies as they focus on innovations in national security, health and wellness and space exploration.

The Material Research Institute’s leadership, resources and expertise are keys to Penn State’s No. 1 ranking in materials science and No. 2 ranking in materials engineering in the recent NSF Research & Development report.

In a February 18 presentation to Penn State’s Board of Trustees, Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss said that the milestone shows the breadth and depth of its research expertise. “It is a testament to the incredible expertise, creativity, and dedication of our faculty, staff and students,” Weiss said. “They reflect the extraordinary innovations within our research portfolio, the talent of our researchers, and the continued confidence of our sponsors.”

A commitment to interdisciplinarity continues to distinguish Penn State

Penn State has a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary research, something that further distinguishes it from its peers. This interdisciplinarity can be clearly seen in its seven interdisciplinary research institutes. The Materials Research Institute, for example, has accounted for more than $150 million in research awards just during 2020. Its unrivaled core facilities make it a critical strategic partner for industry and are a tremendous asset to recruiting top-tier faculty. More than 100 Pennsylvania companies use the facilities, and partners include Morgan, Corning, PPG, Lockheed Martin, Volvo, Dow and Murata. The institute’s leadership, resources and expertise are keys to Penn State’s No. 1 ranking in materials science and No. 2 ranking in materials engineering in the recent NSF Research & Development report, Weiss said.

The Applied Research Laboratory, a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center, celebrated 75 years of research excellence last year. The lab is charged with developing innovative solutions to address challenging national security problems in sea, land, air, space and cyberspace by maintaining essential core capabilities in communications and information, materials and manufacturing, navigation, undersea systems, fluid dynamics and acoustics, and by transitioning advanced technology to operational programs in support of national security priorities.

Strategic seed investments are another important interdisciplinary tool that Penn State utilizes, and it allows for bold forays into new research directions, rapid responses to emerging needs, exploration of high risk-high payoff ideas and collaborations, and support of ideas that are too early for sponsors to fund. As an example of the positive impact of such investment, Weiss cited the University’s research response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which $2.4 million was seeded to 48 research teams across the University that quickly pivoted to address the crisis with expertise in areas ranging from biology to social sciences. To date, she said, those early funds have yielded an additional $11 million in external awards.

Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) is charged with developing innovative solutions to address challenging national security problems in sea, land, air, space and cyberspace.

This interdisciplinarity creates a successful culture of innovation and collaboration that has been celebrated as a model to follow in a recent study published in the Journal of Higher Education, where it stated that Penn State “was a research ecosystem designed for collaborations,” and “college deans and institute directors at Penn State nurture continuous and genuine partnerships.”

Students benefit from lasting industry connections

These close research partnerships benefit Penn State students with hands-on research experience, job opportunities and lasting industry connections. Industry partners including Merck, Lockheed Martin, PPG, Volvo, CSL Behring and Wabtec all engage undergraduates in the research they sponsor, and companies that locate at Innovation Park count on proximity to students for recruiting.

And, because Penn State is such a major research university, Weiss says, “Our students learn from professors who are true experts in their fields and who bring a wealth of research knowledge and experience to the classroom.”

Leading research for the future

Weiss emphasized the value of Penn State’s research as a driver of progress in the commonwealth, the nation and the world. 

“A top research enterprise like Penn State’s attracts leading faculty — the innovators, knowledge discoverers and creative drivers of tomorrow,” Weiss said. “It attracts the best students and provides them with experiences that lead to successful careers. It attracts industrial partnerships, as we help companies anticipate and solve their challenges. Research is crucial to our standing among our peers as a world-class institution and research is what prepares us to address the challenges of tomorrow.”