Friday, August 6, 2010

Waste or innovation for economic value? You judge

UNC Charlotte is North Carolina's urban research university, which means that, among other things we are committed to doing research that affects the greater metropolitan region of Charlotte. The arts is one area of economic activity that helps Charlotte thrive. So it makes sense that some of our research would center on the arts, and the many businesses that comprise the artistic industry.

One major research project that is currently having a valuable, if modest, impact on the local arts business -- and may someday affect the national and international entertainment industry in a much, much bigger way -- is a project called Dance.Draw. It's an interdisciplinary collaboration (one of UNC Charlotte's specialties)between the College of Computing & Informatics and the College of Arts + Architecture.

Dance.Draw will allow the motion of dancers, tracked through small radio frequency transmitters inside their clothing to log dancers' movements. It will be able to provide video of the dancers that can be used by choreographers to explore interactive dance without always having a full cast of dancers present. It will also allow artists and musicians to experiment offline with their media and adjust how it interplays with the choreography.

Essentially, it's leading to software innovation in the business of choreography and dance, a sector of the arts that is seeing a resurgence with the mainstream public thanks in part to popular TV shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing with the Stars," and other popular fare.

This project won a National Science Foundation grant of more than $700,000 to be spread over three years. That's a lot of money and the NSF is one of leading funders of research at universities. The NSF is an experienced and deliberate judge of programs requesting funds and it's evaluators deemed this project eminently worthy for investment. Yet the Dance.Draw project became embroiled in national politics this week when it was cited by two U.S. senators as wasteful. The senators issued a report that provides incomplete information that lacked the context that would portray the value of Dance.Draw. Some national and local media attention followed; the most fair and balanced report appeared in The Charlotte Observer.

Here's what the senators didn't explain:

Three students are working part-time on the project, and being paid to do so; that's economic value. The grant also provides summer salaries for the three professors on the project (1 month per year), as well as stipends to the dancers (10 separate dancer stipends have been paid thus far), contracts for costumers, a contract to a digital artist, and a sub-contract to a research collaborator at another university who helps with evaluation. That's more economic value flowing directly into the regional marketplace. The project also involves studies in which participants are paid. The research team have also bought equipment, and spent money on travel to present their results, so money is flowing directly into the economy in many ways from this grant.

Some have criticized the fact that a considerable percentage of the grant is directed toward adminstrative costs. The coverage implies that the university administration may be taking an undue portion of the funds.

Here's the truth, in context:
The percentage (44 percent) is established for UNC Charlotte (and for every other institution) by the federal government after auditing our actual expenses in administering externally-funded projects like Dance.Draw. These administrative costs occur at the department, college, and central levels (accounting, personnel, payroll, research facilities depreciation, utilities, library use ...). The university puts those funds back into research development, including the development of new research facilities.

UNC Charlotte is reimbursed for facilities and administrative costs at a rate of 44 percent against the applicable direct costs of on-campus research projects. If all of the direct costs were applicable (they aren't), UNC Charlotte's administrative costs would be just under 31 percent of the total costs. Also, NSF grants often involve contributions of resources from the applicant institution (institutional cost-sharing), making the effective cut smaller still. That money is used to operate facilities that are expensive to run. The university is reimbursed for a share of the funding in order to pay itself for the resources it provides to the researchers. The researchers spend their share of the money on the actual research.

Also, the 44 percent cost rate -- which is mandated by the U.S. government after an extensive audit -- is not unusual." For example, one published report says the comparable overhead rates for on-campus research at the flagship universities of the senators' home states is 50 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively.

Also, consider some of the very real potential value of this research: The researchers are not only studying dance in order to develop software, they are studying motion. The software they develop could eventually be used in the entertainment industry – think Spielberg, Lucas, Disney, “Avatar,” animation, the television and film industries. The entertainment industry is a huge sector in the American (and global) economic system. Consider the scope of the jobs this research could eventually help create.

Taking a good, close, watchdog look at the government's use of taxpayer money is admirable, especially when it is done in good faith. In the constant power struggle of national politics, recognizing good faith can be a challenge. In this instance, the Dance.Draw research project has been maligned. Now you've heard another perspective on the story. What do you think?

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Soft launch of new Web site under way

North Carolina’s urban research university has a new digital presence. UNC Charlotte’s redesigned home page, which had its soft launch Tuesday, is the result of around 18 months of planning and efforts by units and departments across campus.

In introducing the site via an e-mail to the campus community, Chancellor Philip L. Dubois wrote that the new home page “reinforces UNC Charlotte’s logo, colors and brand message” and was designed with an “audience-centric navigation scheme that allows visitors to easily locate content.”

Joan Lorden, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, commented that the University’s Web site is the world’s window into UNC Charlotte. “Our site is newly organized to reveal the depth and breadth of what we do and make it easier for external audiences to find, appreciate and benefit from the work of our campus community.”

The Marketing Services Department in the Division for University Relations and Community Affairs will administer the site using Drupal, an open-source content management system (CMS).

“One fresh, clean, simple and uniform template with lots of flexibility – I will be able to use it across all of my pages. Web site management just got easier,” said David McIntosh, manager of Web services in the Information Technology Services Department and a member of the core team for the project.

Drupal will allow for quicker updates to Web sites than those built in “static HTML.”

The redesigned Web site includes a Stake Your Claim presence as well as consistent use of color and fonts that are central to the brand. The main image, designed to reflect the real characteristics of the University, will use UNC Charlotte students, faculty and staff. The images are part of the spotlight stories that will focus of core areas of the University – arts and culture, athletics, global reach, research and scholarship and academic life. A “share this” icon will enable site visitors to distribute content via their preferred social media outlet.

During the soft launch, users can see the new design at After Aug. 10 the new design will be accessed at