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“A Groundbreaking Program”

(Photo courtesy of Jackson State University)

The Princeton-HBCU Alliance for Collaborative Research and Innovation

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Princeton Alliance for Collaborative Research and Innovation (PACRI) is being launched to facilitate research collaborations between Princeton University faculty and their peers at historically Black colleges and universities.

As stated on Princeton University’s website, in May of last year the institution partnered with the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and five historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to “launch a groundbreaking program designed to enable research collaborations between Princeton faculty and their peers at Howard University, Jackson State University, Prairie View A&M University, Spelman College, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.”

These collaborations are being funded through the PACRI. Princeton University’s Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations manages the program.

The University’s website emphasizes that the program is open to “all disciplines, including engineering, natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Proposals are developed jointly by a project team consisting of Princeton and partner-institution faculty members.”

According to the University, the initiative’s aim is to “fund multiple collaborative projects each year between Princeton and each partnering institution.”

(Photo courtesy of University of Maryland Eastern Shore)


Tod G. Hamilton, a professor in Princeton University’s Department of Sociology and a faculty associate of the Office of Population Research, is a co-founder of PACRI.

Hamilton recounts that he and Rodney D. Priestley — who is now dean of the Graduate School but was at the time Princeton’s first vice dean for innovation — began initial conversations about starting the program in the spring of 2020.

“One of the missions of the vice dean for innovation’s office is to uncover innovative ways to support research and entrepreneurship on campus,” says Hamilton, adding that Priestley “contacted me to lend my support to help form the alliance.”

Priestley has said, “We highly value partnerships at Princeton, whether they are with other academic institutions, industry, governments, or nonprofits. We believe that these collaborations enable Princeton researchers and innovators to achieve things that we cannot achieve alone.”

In the May announcement of the program, Priestley explained that “the new PACRI program is similar to other Princeton funding programs that foster collaborations unlikely to happen without the support.” He said, “We hope that researchers will be able to establish foundational work that could then attract greater funding. I am looking forward to seeing what will come out of these teams.”

PACRI’s purpose is to “find new ways of lowering the barriers to collaboration — and collaborating with institutions that Princeton has not historically collaborated with,” Hamilton articulates. “It’s a grounds-up initiative; faculty members at Princeton and at an HBCU partner jointly to together write a proposal, and then researchers at Princeton and the partner institutions evaluate the proposals.”

Hamilton says that his role in the program is as the “faculty co-lead” — first in collaboration with Priestley; now with Craig Arnold, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Priestley’s successor as vice dean for innovation since June 2022.

“The genesis of the program is twofold,” Hamilton explains. “First, Princeton always seeks new opportunities to expand the intellectual reach of the University. In the spring of 2020, the president of the University put forward a call to all cabinet officers to bring forth bold and innovative ideas to combat systemic racism.”

He elaborates that, in connection with Priestley’s role as the vice dean for innovation, “We were interested in exploring bold avenues for expanding the scope of research, entrepreneurship, and innovation on Princeton’s campus. Over a series of conversations, we thought that it would be exciting to create an alliance between Princeton and several HBCUs — institutions that encapsulate the spirit of innovation and have a strong history of academic distinction.”

To that end, PACRI was founded with the aim of “creating a mechanism for researchers at HBCUs to collaborate with Princeton faculty — with the purpose of facilitating the discovery of new ideas and innovation,” Hamilton says.

“We enlisted the help of the United Negro College Fund, who lent their extensive expertise in supporting HBCUs, to help identify partners in the inaugural year of the program,” Hamilton continues. Dr. Chad Womack, UNCF’s senior director of national STEM programs and initiatives, consulted on the selection of the pilot institutions.

Womack has said that “UNCF is excited to support this groundbreaking initiative connecting Princeton University faculty and research faculty at HBCUs. PACRI will provide much-needed funding to help establish sustainable research collaborations between Princeton and HBCU faculty across a variety of HBCU campuses.”

“So we funded 10 proposals for the first cycle, all averaging about a quarter million dollars each,” Hamilton adds. “We recently released our second call for proposals with applications due in early spring — in which we hope to fund another round of proposals, across the five partnering institutions.”

(Photo courtesy of Prairie View A&M University)

Partnering Institutions

Hamilton emphasizes, “The Princeton Alliance for Collaborative Research and Innovation enables partnerships. We aim to lower the barriers to cross-institution collaborations and to support research that wouldn’t be funded in the absence of this initiative.”

As an example, Hamilton points to a project at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which examines coastal flooding in the mid-Atlantic region and how groundwater may play an unseen role in causing it. He also mentions a project at Howard University, where a team of researchers is studying “asthma education programs in housing projects in Washington, D.C., and whether such programs are effective at improving child health.”

Another funded proposal investigates poverty — particularly in connection with Social Security in the Mississippi Delta. “The location of the institutions provides a unique opportunity, particularly in the social sciences, for researchers to collaborate on important social and policy issues,” Hamilton says.

He continues, “This project, a partnership with researchers from Jackson State University in Mississippi, brings teams of researchers into the field to conduct interviews with individuals residing in the Mississippi Delta and southeastern Appalachia to understand how they use Social Security Disability Insurance to make ends meet.”

Hamilton adds that local PIs (principal investigators, who lead research projects) from the region will “help the team uncover how supplemental security income and Social Security Disability Insurance impact household structure, living conditions, and communities in that part of the country.”

“There are also ways in which a unique set of resources that exist at some of the partnering institutions have helped bring about some exciting collaborations,” says Hamilton. “For example, we’re funding a project by a faculty member at Spelman and one from Princeton — where the researchers are making use of the archives of feminist scholar Audre Lorde housed at Spelman to create an original multimedia performance — including video, dance, and spoken word — inspired by her famous essay, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ (1984).”

Asked what the ideal research proposal looks like, Hamilton explains, “We don’t have a particular mold. We’re looking for exciting projects that will produce a meaningful product. If we fund a proposal from someone in theater, then the product of interest might be a new theater performance.”

He elaborates, “If we’re funding projects in computer science, engineering, or ecology and evolutionary biology, the final product would be academic articles or conference presentations.”

As an example, Hamilton points to a project about detecting “deep fake” videos that is based on advanced work in 3D reconstruction by a researcher at Prairie View A&M University. “Cybersecurity is a topic of immense importance. In the end, we’re looking for great projects that bring new teams of individuals together to gain the new insights and perspectives needed to push the frontier of knowledge.”

(Photo courtesy of Prairie View A&M University)

Goals for the Future

Asked how he hopes to see PACRI evolve in the long term, Hamilton says, “We are excited by the support we have received from the provost’s office and by the overwhelming response we have received from faculty colleagues across the University. Going forward, we envision several natural extensions of the program.”

He says, building on the successful collaborations between Princeton and the initial five partnering institutions, “We hope to expand the number of institutions that are in the alliance.

“We’re also excited about the possibility of expanding connections around intellectual property development, technology transfer, and entrepreneurship — which are all natural outcomes of research and scholarship.”

Asked what he particularly wants readers to know about PACRI, Hamilton says, “At Princeton, we believe that inclusive research is fundamental to research excellence. The University has many alliances with institutions to enrich its research and teaching mission, including with Humboldt University, the University of Tokyo, and the University of Sao Paulo.”

“These strategic alliances help build durable ties through faculty-designed collaborations,” he continues, adding that they create the “capacity for faculty and students to enhance and sustain academic cooperation through the institutional support of their home and host universities, enabling more significant and long-term collaborations to grow organically.”

Hamilton concludes, “The academy and broader society benefit from initiatives that facilitate the exchange of ideas and remove the barriers to innovation.”
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