R1 designation highlights consistent research

A prestigious recognition listed SU as a top-tier research university — however, research faculty members and graduate students already saw the school as one.

Back in February, Syracuse University media created a small explosion of excitement when the school received an award for its level of research excellence.

SU News reported “the significance of the Carnegie classification and the University’s commitment to sustaining and growing important collaborative research with broad impact” as something worth celebrating. Chancellor Kent Syverud sent out a heartfelt email in relation to SU researchers’ part in a worldwide discovery, writing: “Today is a day of discovery that defines a great university. … That is the thrilling nature of research. It is why we are all so privileged to be a part of Syracuse University.”

Photo: Charles Driscoll
SU is one of 20 universities collaborating on a study on the effects of ice storms on forest recovery.

But to research faculty, students and staff at SU, the award really isn’t anything new.

“If there’s a concrete takeaway from this, it’s that SU has been successful. It’s an indication that we’re in the top 100,” said Peter Vanable, the university’s interim vice president for research. A label like the “R1” designation serves to put SU higher up on potential grad students’ radars, or distinguishes SU as a top research facility despite an absent medical program, but doesn’t do much else, he added.

The R1 designation — awarded as part of the 2015 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education — is largely based on research expenditures, external funding, number of research faculty and staff size, number of postdoctoral researchers, among other categories, Vanable said. As of 2010, SU held an R2 designation.

Can Aslan, the president of SU’s Graduate Student Organization and a doctoral candidate in the Bioengineering Ph.D. Program, said the new designation is nice for the university, but doesn’t change the graduate student atmosphere surrounding research.

“It’s just like a label that doesn’t really matter. SU has been doing research for a while,” Aslan said. “Grad students are isolated in our research. In terms of engineering, we’re pretty much isolated within our labs because it can take so long.”

Aslan’s work during his time at SU has included a collaboration with Upstate Medical Hospital. He has used 3D printing to create exact replicas of patient data for doctors to study without any surgery. Aslan has also worked on testing titanium joints to determine their capabilities.

“I’m working on mechanical testing of hip implants,” Aslan said. “The hip implant is loaded to simulate walking, for instance. And we can observe corrosion, et cetera. It’s so cool.”

 Around the same time as the R1 designation, SU researchers played a crucial role in the discovery of gravitational waves. Researchers were able to prove Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity by using a twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors to detect subtle waves that interfered with space and time as two black holes collided. 

Charles Driscoll, a distinguished professor of environmental systems at the College of Engineering and Computer Science, points out the R1’s arbitrary measures of defining the best research facilities. Just because a school spends millions on research doesn’t make it better than a small college with a research budget in the thousands.

“It’s not about the money. What do you do with that money? I don’t care about the money. I think (the recognition) is good, and I think it’s good for the university,” Driscoll said. “I think it sends a message about our commitment to scholarship, and that enhances the reputation of the university.”

Driscoll’s work in studying the effects of acid rain and climate change takes him all over the country. Driscoll and a team of researchers hailing from 20 different universities — including the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the University of California at Berkeley, Vassar College, Cornell University and Dartmouth College — have been working in Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire, on simulating the effect of ice storm damage in forest ecosystems.

“With climate change, it’s expected that ice storms are going to be more prevalent as you go north,” Driscoll said. “We’re developing algorithms to make projections on the occurrence of ice storms based on weather conditions.”

Those algorithms have yet to be invented, and SU faculty will be behind their creation, Driscoll added. 

“Most students think we’re just here to teach you and we are,” Driscoll said. “But we’re also interested in this other component of our mission— the scholarship and research.”

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