Press Release

Chemist Graham Fleming named vice chancellor for research

| 01 April 2009

Graham R. Fleming, the Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and former deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), has been appointed the campus's vice chancellor for research, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced today (Wednesday, April 1.)

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research administers all federal, state and private research funds received by the campus and oversees all campus museums and research units.

Graham FlemingGraham Fleming
"These units represent an enormous breadth of research across campus, including the arts and humanities, biology, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences and social sciences. We are extremely fortunate to have in Graham Fleming a scholar with unequaled research insight, deep experience and proven leadership skills," said Birgeneau.

"Research goes on in every component of campus, and that includes the social sciences and humanities; we shine in these areas, too," Fleming said. "At Berkeley, we have excellence across the board, and it will be my job to provide support to help our entire academic research community continue this tradition of excellence."

"Beth did a really great job; my goal is to build on what she did," Fleming said of his predecessor, Beth Burnside, a professor of molecular and cell biology who stepped down from the post October 31.

The campus received $606.6 million in research funding in fiscal year 2008, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year. In addition, the energy company BP awarded UC Berkeley $350 million to be paid out over 10 years to explore bioenergy research.

Upon assuming the role of vice chancellor today, Fleming will relinquish his current position as founding director of the UC Berkeley arm of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), one of four state- and industry-funded Governor Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation created in 2000. Fleming will continue to run his UC Berkeley/LBNL-supported research laboratory in Hildebrand Hall.

Fleming, 59, said he assumes his role at a time of both challenge and opportunity. As California reduces its financial support to the University of California, a federal stimulus package sets aside nearly $14 billion for basic research through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Fleming's challenge is to help connect innovative UC Berkeley faculty with new funds to boost research and jobs.

"Our goal always has been to have faculty do the things that only they can do, and to provide help with the rest, so it is not so onerous to apply for research grants," he said. "Whether a faculty member is applying for a single grant or a large, multidisciplinary grant, I want the barriers to success to be as low as possible."

Fleming said the vice chancellor for research can also help create opportunities - such as by finding areas of faculty strength and assembling groups of researchers to attack societal problems.

"Working with the college deans, the VC-research can take a strong hand in looking at the world's important problems and determining what UC Berkeley's role should be in solving them, and strategically pursuing funding for them," he said. "I want to make the office more entrepreneurial and outward-looking, in order to maximize research opportunities for faculty and students of the university and to maximize the impact of that work on society."

Examples of such past efforts at UC Berkeley are the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI), funded for five years by the Department of Energy to develop better biofuels, and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a year-old bioenergy "think tank" funded for 10 years by energy company BP for a total of $500 million. Burnside played a key role in assembling the faculty expertise needed to write the EBI proposal and in shepherding it to success.

The establishment of JBEI and EBI demonstrates how UC Berkeley and LBNL can step forward to assemble the right talent to tackle a problem. While in this case the topic was developing sustainable energy sources, Fleming says these two ventures illustrate a bigger potential that goes beyond energy research.

"One lesson we learned from EBI was that when we bring together all our strengths, all the amazing range of expertise that we have at Berkeley, we are unbeatable," Fleming said.

Aside from energy, he said, overlapping areas in which UC Berkeley and LBNL stand out include health and biomedicine. For example, experts in biology, physical and social sciences, law and business could collaborate on health care technologies that lower health care costs by heading off expensive patient visits to the emergency room or intensive care units.

To make the campus more entrepreneurial, Fleming hopes to expand a proactive approach pioneered within QB3. In the QB3 model, a grants officer closely monitors grant applications for each researcher and suggests possible collaborators that would both expand the scope of a research project and increase its impact. After a successful application, grants staff administer the research funds and assist with regular reporting, lifting a big administrative burden from the faculty principal investigators.

As a result, he said, QB3-Berkeley has become the second highest generator of external grant funds, supporting 83 faculty member affiliates at UC Berkeley. QB3-Berkeley's successful model of streamlining administrative support was expanded in 2008 into Research Enterprise Services (RES), a unit that reports to the vice chancellor for research and provides administrative services to nine research units, including QB3, EBI and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

Partnering with private industry is critical to making sure research breakthroughs are translated into benefits for society, Fleming said. He cautioned, however, that partnering with industry must be done in a way that protects academic values and the UC mission so that the campus doesn't become a "job shop" for industry.

Another way to ensure that campus discoveries benefit society is by encouraging faculty and students to start their own companies. One idea that Fleming is instituting within QB3 is the creation of an on-campus business incubator like the "QB3 Garage" now operating at the institute's Mission Bay Campus in San Francisco. Such a place would offer lab space and equipment that a faculty or student start-up could rent to ease their technology out of the lab and into a start-up, "taking the fear out of stepping across the 'valley of death,'" so called because the transition from lab to industry often results in failure.

"That is something that QB3 and the campus as a whole could do to have an incredible impact on the Northern California economy," he said.

Fleming's own research involves using ultrafast pulsed lasers to study the rapid physical and chemical processes that occur during photosynthesis and as chemicals dissolve in liquids. Combining a laser technique called femtosecond spectroscopy - a femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second - with supercomputer simulation, he has helped understanding of the molecular mechanism by which chemicals, including dyes and natural pigments such as chlorophylls and carotenoids, interact with their environments. These findings may lead to new, synthetic ways to convert solar energy directly to electricity or fuel.

Fleming was born in Barrow-in-Furness, in the United Kingdom, and graduated from the University of Bristol in 1971. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of London in 1974 while working at the Royal Institute with 1967 chemistry Nobel Laureate George Porter. After a two-year, post-doctoral stint in Melbourne, Australia, he joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1979, remaining there for 18 years and spending three of them as chairman of the chemistry department.

In 1997, he was lured to UC Berkeley with the promise that he could set up a new research division at LBNL that would bring together physical and biological scientists. He served as founding director of the Physical Biosciences division until his appointment as LBNL deputy director in 2005, working under Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, now secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Fleming left that position in 2007.

Fleming, now an American citizen, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Among his awards are the George Porter Medal of the Photochemistry Societies of Europe, Asia/Oceania and the Americas; the Centenary Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry; and six awards from the American Chemical Society.

As vice chancellor, Fleming will earn an annual base salary of $300,000. Additional details about his compensation will be posted at the UC Regents' Website on salaries and compensation.