Early in his State of the State speech Monday, Gov. Kevin Stitt took a moment to salute Dr. Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, the University of Oklahoma’s new vice president for research and partnerships.
“This past year, the University of Oklahoma not only won its 13th Big 12 Football Championship, it also won the talent of one of the best researchers in the nation,” Stitt said.
Diaz de la Rubia is a nuclear physicist by training and, until September, chief scientific officer and senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Purdue University. And there was Kevin Stitt, talking about him like a five-star blue chip prospect.
Diaz de la Rubia has a vision for economic growth that plays off intersections between OU’s research strengths and macrotrends in the world economy and society, with a lot of the costs paid for by the beneficiaries — corporations and the federal government. If it works, it would produce jobs and wealth, and Stitt — who was part of the interview process that resulted in Diaz de la Rubia’s hiring — seems to have bought in.
I asked the governor’s office about Stitt’s interest in OU research.
“My top priority in higher education is to ensure our universities have the competitive advantage to participate in and produce the best research in the nation,” Stitt responded in a prepared statement. “I commend the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents and interim President Joseph Harroz for their vision to grow research opportunities at the institution and for their active recruitment to bring top-tier talent to the state.
“I am confident that through the vision being set by the university, OU’s research reputation will be elevated to Top Ten in the country.”
Diaz de la Rubia is a soft-spoken man who makes incredibly complicated ideas accessible without losing any of their complexity. Ten minutes into a recent conversation with the Tulsa World editorial board, he was describing a strategic matrix driven by a series of parallel global trends (such population growth and the digitalization of society) moving in one direction and “transverse axes” of centers of excellence at OU, such as meteorology, energy and sustainability and cancer research.
You have to listen fast and smart when Diaz de la Rubia speaks.
If OU were looking for a model for getting to the next level in research funding using a state research university in the middle of the nation to leverage economic growth, Purdue would be a good choice.
In the 10 years that ended in 2017, Purdue ranked in the top 15 institutions nationally in earned doctorates awarded and was consistently around fifth percentile in federally funded research and total research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2017, the school’s research and development budget was $622.8 million, the 37th highest in the nation and exceeded by only a dozen noncoastal public institutions.
In the same period, OU ranked at or around the 10th percentile in total and federally funded research and closer to the 20th percentile in earned doctorates. OU’s 2017 research budget was $272.2 million, No. 84 in the nation.
A big target for Diaz de la Rubia is research funded by the federal government, especially the Pentagon, which spent some $3.4 billion in university research in federal fiscal year 2020, according to the Association of American Universities.
“If we’re going to grow… we have to make ourselves relative and competitive to those federal opportunities,” he said.
I asked OU for its latest figures for its entire system and for it Tulsa campus.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, OU hosted $309 million in funded research, $166.6 million of it from the federal government. The Tulsa campus had $6.4 million in research funding, $1.8 million from the federal government.
If the Diaz de la Rubia plan takes hold, all those numbers should go up, including federal and corporate funded research as OU reaches out to the state’s defense, health and technology sectors to align with research and corporate growth strategies. Some of the big winners would be the school’s work in meteorology in Norman, cancer research in Oklahoma City and internet security in Tulsa.
Is the state serious about university-based research?
Here’s a good metric: When the governor goes to a combined meeting of both chambers of the Legislature and, in the first five minutes, talks about you in the same breath with a reference to football championships, you’re hot.