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Building partnerships for research success

Two scientists conduct research in a laboratory setting

ORAU has a thriving research enterprise, and the ORAU Research and University Partnerships Office continues to position the organization to be even better equipped to conduct research independently and for our federal agency customers and industry partners in the years ahead.

Currently, ORAU conducts research valued at about $15 million a year for federal agencies over a broad range of research areas, including atmospheric science, radiation science and dosimetry, health science and health communications, epidemiology and human research protection. In fact, research is in our DNA. From our founding in 1946 through today, research has been part of who we are and where we’re headed.

“I talk about this all the time,” said Ken Tobin, ORAU chief research and university partnerships officer on a recent episode of Further Together: The ORAU Podcast. “Research is good for our company… better research and the right level of research equals better performance as a company.”

A major differentiator for ORAU’s research enterprise is our University Consortium. The consortium is comprised of 152 colleges and universities across the country, and we work to leverage the research strengths and interests of consortium members to meet the needs of federal, state, local and commercial customers.

Creating research clusters

Consortium members are almost always included in business development proposals bidding for new work.

“One of the ways we leverage our universities is by creating research clusters,” said Cathy Fore, senior director of university partnerships. Depending on the requirements of a contract or request for proposal, Fore and her team can slot universities into proposals based on their expertise.

Fore shared the example of a contract awarded by Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Division to support the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. Under the contract, the program will recruit and engage a select number of universities in activities that will help recruit, develop and train next generation nuclear and national security talent. NNSA’s near-term goal was to select three to five universities for a pilot project. ORAU sent a request for information to member universities in October, and 24 members responded.

Overall, ORAU reached out to all of its member universities last year to partner with ORAU on business development opportunities with six federal agencies and two national laboratories.

Just-in-time response

ORAU is advancing its current university engagement model. We’re developing Basic Ordering Agreements (BOAs)—generalized contracts with pre-agreed-upon terms and conditions—with universities to create an environment for rapid just-in-time response to requests for proposals and for customers with whom we have existing indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts. IDIQs provide opportunities for consortium members to conduct real-world research for government agencies.

“We’re creating a framework for select partnerships right now, which is a big change for our engagement process,” Tobin said. “We’re hoping to evolve to the point of having existing BOAs in place for all of our university partners.”

The University of New Mexico (UNM), for example, was key to ORAU being named by the Department of Health and Human Services as a prime contractor to provide services under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) IDIQ. Of particular importance was UNM’s expertise in communicating with indigenous and tribal communities, which is critical to the SAMHSA work.

With BOAs in place, ORAU can more rapidly respond to proposal requests because they will already know the terms and conditions under which each university partner can commit to working with our government agency partners.

“These are true business partnerships,” Fore said of the university BOAs. “Expectations are set for everyone at the table, and our goal is to be a business partner with all of our universities.”

Culture change

In addition to changing how business is being done with our university partners, ORAU has an eye toward changing how employees see themselves within the larger organization by offering more opportunities for everyone to participate in research.

“Almost anyone at ORAU can be a researcher or they can participate in research,” Tobin said.

He means that literally. This year, Tobin’s office created a research scientist job family that more fully integrates research being conducted by ORAU employees into the fabric of the organization. In addition, four grant and award programs are offered to employees to secure internal funding for projects that advance ORAU’s Strategic Research Agenda.

  • ORAU-Directed Research and Development (ODRD) Grants, where an ORAU researcher at any level is paired with a university partner to submit a proposal for research in three focus areas: climate and environment, health equity and future of the STEM workforce (see page 14).
  • Thought Leadership Awards, which support the completion of publications sent to peer-reviewed journals, time and travel to present original research at national and international meetings, white paper development, and support of ODRD planning activities (see page 15).
  • ORAU Summer Internship Program, where a member university undergraduate or graduate student is teamed with an ORAU subject matter expert to participate in a 10-week educational experience in one of ORAU’s strategic research domains: worker health and epidemiology; decommissioning health physics; radiation science and dosimetry; atmospheric science; health communication, marketing and training; STEM workforce assessment and evaluation; and peer review practice and technology.
  • Business development funding, which supports activities specifically aimed at supporting or developing research opportunities.

Challenge to universities

RUPO’s largest event of the year, the Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions, will be held March 6–7, 2023, and is focused on “Climate Security and Environmental Justice: Pathways to Achieving the 2050 Carbon Net-Zero Goal.” Speakers will include experts and leaders from academia, federal agencies and national organizations.

Events like the annual meeting and a recent series of data science webinars held in partnership with consortium members are designed to foster relationship building among government agencies and universities. Fore says such events are part matchmaking and part challenge.

“We’re challenging and helping academia to be better positioned to support government agencies,” she said. By focusing on issues of importance to those agencies, like climate security in 2023 or lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic in 2022, universities are in the room where these issues are being discussed in an open but invitation-only environment.

“We’re fostering smart partnerships among academia and government agencies,” Tobin said. “That’s a good thing for everyone.”

ORAU Media Contacts and Information

About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Media Contacts

Pam BoneeDirector, CommunicationsCell: (865) 603-5142
Wendy WestManager, CommunicationsCell: (865) 207-7953