Hoping to fit in more time for his love of bird watching and return to his love of teaching, Jim Siedow announced his decision not to seek another reappointment as vice provost of research.
Since the announcement—officially made Nov. 11—the committee appointed to select his successor has had its first meeting. The decision, Provost Peter Lange noted, will be made in April. During a time with concerns about the future of federal funding and the appointment of a new provost looming, Siedow said his successor will have a unique set of challenges to tackle.
“If the federal government really, seriously cuts back on funding, it is going to put the squeeze on all of the major research universities—of which we are one,” Siedow said. “There is a limit to what anyone in this office can do to change that.”
But change has been a constant throughout his time here, Siedow noted.
“We are always trying to facilitate research,” Siedow said. “But the means to make that happen have changed quite a bit.”
He noted that an increasing amount of funding is coming from industry sources rather than government-based grants.
“It’s a really rapidly changing environment for research funding because of what’s going on with the federal government and the sequestration, shutdown and changing priorities for different agencies,” said Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development at North Carolina State University.
She added that research administrators need to always be looking for new sources for funding and hope to optimize the money that they do receive.
Grant applications that represent more than one department or interdisciplinary area of study tend to receive much more funding than more traditional requests, he noted.
Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for basic science—Siedow’s counterpart at the School of Medicine—said many of impending challenges to research funding are shared between the two schools.
“Maintaining strong funding in a tight research economy is going to continue to be a major challenge for Duke and our peer institutions,” she said. “Duke is well-poised, however, for the many interdisciplinary opportunities in research, as Duke has been investing in and building interdisciplinary research teams for a number of years.”
Decreasing federal investments and the increasingly unpredictable nature of federal budgeting are additional challenges for Siedow’s successor, said Melissa Vetterkind, director of the Office of Federal Relations.
Among the traits most important for the person who next takes the role are “a certain degree of political astuteness and a good sense of humor,” Vetterkind added.
“It is always good to keep it in perspective and to maintain a sense of humor,” Siedow said. “You can’t let every crisis be an event where the sky is falling. You have to keep calm.”
Kornbluth and Siedow collaborate on many of the issues that impact research across campus.
She highlighted Siedow’s sound judgment and thoughtfulness as traits that made him an ideal vice provost—characteristics that Kornbluth noted she hoped to see the successor.
A decade of growth
In his 12 years as vice provost, Siedow has tackled many challenges to smooth research procedures. Although the bulk of his time is spent managing issues with compliance, he has also had to oversee large-scale potential finding losses—the details of which he is not at liberty to disclose.
As regulations from government continue to grow, the job of ensuring all researchers are complying has become increasingly difficult, he noted.
Lange noted that Siedow was responsible for overseeing the complete overhaul of the system for reporting conflicts of interest in research—switching the traditional paper filing system to a user-friendly online interface.
From establishing the Duke Office of Export Controls to chairing the committee that aligned summer salary funding with federal regulations, Siedow has been a key factor in overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
At the beginning of his term in 2001, the University oversaw $375 million per year in research and development expenditures. Last year, Duke oversaw more than $1 billion worth of research funding, making it the fifth largest research university in the nation. Although much of this growth happened in the medical center, under Siedow’s guidance, campus-based research expenditures grew by 73 percent.
“We have had a huge uptick in research—for which he can’t take all of the credit—but building all of the systems to manage that has been his responsibility,” Lange said. “He has also encouraged new kinds of research and more collaborative grants.”
Siedow emphasized his goal of providing means for researchers to pursue their goals rather than having to refuse them.
“Our role is to make things happen,” Siedow said. “Our goal is not to tell faculty that we can’t do something. Our goal is to try and figure out how we can do it, and at the end of the day if it turns out to be illegal, then we will let the legal people tell us we can’t do it. We are’t going to be the ones to tell the faculty what they can’t do.”
A system to collect surveys following paperwork submission allowed researchers to let Siedow know when parts of the process were hindering their ability to work effectively.
Although his office receives some negative feedback, the vast majority of faculty has been satisfied with the processes he has put in place, Siedow said.
“Our office works with Jim to develop and implement Duke’s federal research agenda,” Vetterkind said. “We tap into his expertise on a wide range of issues, from federal funding of research to export controls to compliance and regulatory burden. He has been a wonderful resource and advocate not only for Duke, but for the nation’s research enterprise as a whole.”
Lange highlighted Siedow’s largest accomplishments as managing the growth and infrastructure of research.
“He is extremely well-organized and very committed to his job,” Lange said. “He is always very straightforward—when he sees problems, he lets you know so you can fix them.”
Siedow excels at balancing both the human and academic aspects of his job, Lange said.
Building effective compliance structures without making the system unnecessarily complicated for researchers was a major obstacle that Siedow had to overcome in his time, Lange noted.
Returning to his passion
The timing of his stepping down coincides with Lange’s decision not to seek reappointment as provost, as Siedow wants his successor to have time to form their own relationship with their new boss.
“I hate to leave a new provost in the lurch,” he said “But I am confident that they will find someone new who will come in and hit the ground running.”
In addition to continuing his term as an associate editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry—a job that requires him to read about 300 manuscripts a year—Siedow will return to his true passion of learning and teaching biology. He said that he hopes to serve as a mentor for students and young researchers.
The decision not to seek reappointment comes after Siedow broke one of his own guidelines.
“My own personal philosophy of higher administration is that nobody should serve in one position for more than 10 years,” he said. “So I have already broken my own rule by two years.”
After 10 years, Siedow noted, an administraion can become too comfortable in a position and stops looking critically to improve what they are doing.
A Texas native, Siedow received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969 and completed his Ph.D. in plant biochemistry at Indiana University in 1972.
Before becoming vice provost, Siedow joined the Duke community as an assistant professor of botany in 1976 and received his full professorship in 1987. From 1994 to 1996, he chaired the Academic Council and was the dean of faculty development in Arts and Sciences from 1997 to 1999.
“If you are not going to be a dean, among the provostial positions, I think this is actually the best of the lot,” Siedow said. “There are a lot of interesting things that you do related to the research enterprise.”
Siedow took the position following the “untimely death” of his predecessor, Charles Putman. He noted that Lange personally asked him to consider the position.
“[Siedow] has just done a great job,” Lange said. “Everybody respects his integrity. his intelligence and the way he has conducted himself in that office, and that makes a big difference on the research side where research compliance and all of that is such a big factor.”