‘Research matters’: Arkansas Research Alliance investing in the future

Donna Stephens

Donna Lampkin Stephens is in her 21st year teaching journalism at the University of Central Arkansas. She was a sportswriter at the Arkansas Gazette from 1984 until the newspaper died on Oct. 18, 1991. She will become president of the American Journalism Historians Association in October. Having grown up in rural Ouachita County, she has lived most of her life with rescued pets. Today, she and her husband, Ken, share their Conway home with five — dogs Chester, Rusty, Roman and Lily, and Monty, the cat.
Donna Stephens

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Eleven years in, the Arkansas Research Alliance is making more and more of a difference for the 501 — and the state.

On the entity’s 11th birthday — April 8 — founder Jerry Adams of Conway said he was pleased with its progress.

“We are much more and different in very positive ways than what I envisioned,” said Adams, who retired after 34 years as an Acxiom executive before becoming president and CEO of ARA in 2008.

According to aralliance.org, the ARA is “dedicated to elevating a fundamental belief: Research Matters.”

It is a public-private partnership that, according to the website, “invests in research that stimulates innovation, encourages collaboration, and strengthens economic opportunity.”

Arkansas Research Alliance, as well as a few other initiatives, such as Innovate Arkansas and the STEM Coalition, came out of Accelerate Arkansas, the policy strategy group looking to build a knowledge-based economy in the state.

The ARA Team: Jeremy Harper (from left), Jerry Adams, Roben Brooks, Julie LaRue, Art Norris and Bryan Barnhouse.

A two-year study funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation for Accelerate Arkansas resulted in five core strategies for long-term economic growth in the state: support job-creating research; develop risk capital that is available for all stages of the business cycle; encourage entrepreneurship and accelerated new enterprise development; increase the education level of Arkansans in science, technology, engineering and math; and sustain successful existing industry through advancing technology and competitiveness.

ARA targets that first core strategy.

“The one we picked up was how to use university research to change the economic trajectory of Arkansas,” Adams said.

ARA was modeled after the Georgia Research Alliance, but Adams said Arkansas officials chose to focus on a very specific portion of what Georgia does.

Gov. Mike Beebe provided $500,000 in state money for start-up funds in 2008. Funding today comes from board dues and state contributions.

According to the website, “ARA continues its evolution from an aspirational organization to one that is delivering real impact for Arkansas. We’re proud to foster collaboration between industry, government and academia, and have expanded our research partnerships with universities and other public and private entities to generate value for the people and businesses of our state. At a time when federal research dollars are shrinking, ARA is stepping up efforts.”

The organization’s board of trustees comprises chancellors of the state’s five research universities — the University of Arkansas, UAMS, UA-Little Rock, UA-Pine Bluff and Arkansas State University — as well as business leaders from across the state.

As part of the goal to change the economic trajectory of Arkansas, the organization started the ARA Scholars program to provide strategic recruiting for each of the five research universities. According to the website, the Scholars program is “the cornerstone for ARA and plays a pivotal role in bridging university research and economic development.” Ongoing projects include drug development, stem cell research and cutting-edge membrane technology, among others.

The ARA Fellows program, begun a few years later, is an effort to recognize and retain the research talent already on those campuses.

According to the website, “Recruiting new talent starts with investing in the strong base of researchers already making a difference in Arkansas.”

Fellows are nominated by their respective institutions.

Adams said in about 2013, ARA also developed a strategic relationship with the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson County — the only FDA Center located outside the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

“We brought that in as almost our sixth research university,” he said.

About 28 Scholars and Fellows make up the ARA Academy, which had its third annual conference last fall.

“That academy was not on the drawing board initially, but it manifests almost all of the positive attributes we’re working with — to elevate collaboration between research universities and also to recognize and retain the talent we have,” Adams said. “Both (former) Gov. Beebe and Gov. (Asa) Hutchinson have been extraordinarily supportive of ARA, and we work closely with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and its executive director, Mike Preston.”

Press conferences with the governor roll out the new class of the academy every year.

“It’s a very important embrace and confirmation for the governor that the ARA Academy is strategically important to the state,” Adams said.

A new initiative of the Academy program is targeted impact grants to academy members of approximately $75,000 based on their application and a clearly defined return on investment.

“We are investing about $1 million in 15 ARA impact grants this year,” Adams said. “These really strong researchers may get $2-, $3-, $5-, $11-million research grants over a five-year period, but actually they can get stuck because the majority of that money is restricted. This money is unrestricted. We monitor them, but this $75,000 can accelerate their productivity.”

With the five research campuses having gone through 13 chancellors during the 11 years of ARA’s existence, Adams said in many ways, ARA provides the institutional memory for some of the initiatives.

“There’s tremendous support from the chancellors and vice provosts of research and provosts,” he said. “We’re modeled after the program in Georgia, which has had two notable failures — Alabama and Mississippi. In Alabama, you can’t get the University of Alabama and Auburn in the same building. In Mississippi, the level of collaboration has not been great.

“But in Arkansas, it’s highly collaborative and a lot of interaction. We’re improving interaction across the campuses.”

As an example, he pointed to a “very prolific researcher” at UALR who is working on growing bone. The Department of Defense, obviously, is interested in such research to address casualties of war.

“And now they’re also collaborating with another ARA Fellow from UAMS who is working with him on how to target antibodies so that they can not only grow bone but also ensure no inflammatory problems come through this growth,” Adams said. “Innovation takes a special world view, and these 28 innovators we have in this state add some unique qualities we need to leverage and get them to elevate research around cancer and some other things that are strategically important to the future of the state of Arkansas.

“We are invited into a lot of these conversations at these campuses, which is very encouraging. The challenge is every other state is also having these conversations.”

So, what’s next?

“There’s no time to rest,” Adams said. “We are very mindful of the need for progress. We need to do what we’re doing better, go deeper on the campuses and mature the academy. We have a lot of opportunities.”

For more information about the Arkansas Research Alliance, visit aralliance.org.