While serving as director of the Division of Ocean Sciences at the National Science Foundation, David Conover gained new insight into how to appeal to mission-driven federal agencies for research funding.
“Many scientists treat the NSF as if it’s just a bank that they have to convince to give them money,” Conover said. “Scientists think ‘It’s all about me,’ but it’s not about you.
“The best way to convince the NSF, and this is true of the NIH as well, to give you money is to convince them that what you want to do is going to accomplish their objectives. If you write a proposal that way you’re much more likely to be successful.”
As the University of Oregon’s new vice president for research and innovation, Conover has the opportunity to apply the lessons learned as the head of the NSF’s second-largest division and all the skills and experience he amassed in his 35 years as a researcher and administrator at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He served as a professor of marine science, department head in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and the institution’s vice president for research.
“What I love about being a vice president for research is the opportunity to work across all the sciences and the humanities,” Conover said. “It’s just stunning all the great work that’s done at a university and very exciting to be the person whose role it is to facilitate research, discovery and innovation.”
In his new role, Conover oversees approximately $115 million in sponsored research funding, directs the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and manages the UO’s entire research enterprise, including the majority of the university’s multidisciplinary research centers and institutes. Additionally, he leads strategic research initiatives and partnerships; looks over the institution’s research infrastructure and administration, compliance and regulatory environment; and manages innovation and commercialization efforts.
Since arriving in mid August, Conover has been outlining his goals for the office, which include creating more partnerships across disciplines, schools, colleges and other institutions, helping faculty and students share their research and scholarship with a broader public audience, and working to fulfill UO President Michael Schill’s efforts to enhance and expand UO's research portfolio.
“I am thrilled to have David on board," Schill said. "He has a clear vision for helping to realize our ambitions to raise the UO’s research profile, build on our academic strengths, increase the resources flowing to research and facilitate new and exciting interdisciplinary partnerships. The university will benefit immensely from his experience, expertise and unique skill set.”
Conover said he is excited to be working alongside the president to elevate the UO and redefine the research mission of the university.
“My vision is to help this university greatly accelerate the progress of science, the amount of funding coming here to support that science, and to connect the research that we do here to things that matter to people of this state,” Conover said.
During his tenure at Stony Brook, Conover launched a new Office of Proposal Development, boosted proposal production by more than 20 percent, increased research expenditures more than 5 percent despite stagnant federal funding, landed numerous large federal grants and tripled its number of NSF graduate research fellows.
Larry Swanson, the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook, served as Conover’s associate dean after competing with him for the dean’s job, which Conover ultimately won. While at Stony Brook, Swanson said, Conover brought all of his skills and experience to bear on the research enterprise and continued to educate and re-educate himself to improve his performance as the university’s chief research officer.
“He really delves into the jobs that he has,” Swanson said. “He doesn’t deal from ignorance. He knows the facts and uses them effectively in managing his organization.”
The fact that Conover asked a former rival to later serve on his team emphasizes his open-mindedness and his own philosophy on surrounding himself with people who can help him achieve his goals.
“I’m very much a team-based leader,” Conover said. “I’m responsible for many things across this university. I can’t do that without assembling around me a team of very strong people who are experts in each of the areas that they are responsible for.”
Conover’s leadership qualities and his long list of accomplishments captured the attention of the UO hiring committee that selected him. Provost Scott Coltrane said his breadth of experience — as a researcher and principal investigator, university leader and funding agency manager — and his skills as a communicator made him the clear choice to succeed Brad Shelton, interim vice president for research and innovation.
“David brings experience from all sides of the research world to the UO — as researcher and principal investigator, university leader and funding agency manager,” Coltrane said in announcing Conover's hiring. “He knows what faculty need to be successful and what agencies are looking for in making their funding decisions.”
At a time when federal research funding is generally flat from year to year, Conover said it’s more important than ever for the UO to spell out the importance of research and innovation and the projects that go on here.
“One of my top priorities is to help give our faculty the tools they can use to do a better job at communicating with the public about the fantastic discoveries they are making and the incredible advances in knowledge on this campus,” Conover said. “We can’t keep that a secret. We really need to let the public know about all of the great things that are done here.”
Conover’s former colleagues point to his ability to speak on behalf of all types of research and creative inquiry. It’s a skill that he traces back to his own research examining fisheries science and marine conservation.
“I'm quite comfortable talking with chemists or geologists or physicists because ocean science is a very interdisciplinary (field) to begin with,” he explains. “I've always taken a very broad approach to science. I think you need that kind of approach. You need to be able to talk to people in disciplines that are not your own.”
Conover’s interest in marine science dates back to his childhood growing up in Florida. He spent his free time water skiing, fishing, diving and participating in other water sports and developed an appreciation for the natural environment. Since joining the Stony Brook faculty as an assistant professor in 1981 he has authored more than 125 publications and racked up numerous research grants and awards.
Conover will not have a lab at the UO, but he hopes to continue his research and teaching on some level. He will also likely be involved in the UO’s efforts as an affiliate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The organization was founded at Stony Brook University in 2009 and Conover played a central role in bringing the organization to Long Island.
The Alda Center works to enhance public understanding of science by helping train the next generation of researchers to communicate more effectively. Conover said the UO’s commitment to the program factored into his decision to come to Oregon.
“It told me there were people here who were already excited to connect the work being done here with public interest,” Conover said.
Conover isn’t the only science communicator in his family. His daughter, Emily, is a science writer for Science News with a doctorate in physics, and his wife, Margaret, is a botanist, science educator and former director of a community-based science museum on Long Island.
Conover’s son, Adam, is the host of the Tru TV comedy show “Adam Ruins Everything.” In each episode, Adam Conover challenges conventional wisdom with science and research. David Conover has appeared in an episode on fraudulently labeled fish and will be appearing with his wife on the final episode of the upcoming fall season.
“I won’t claim any credit for the comedy part,” Conover said. “But I will claim some credit for his approach of using research to uncover hidden truths and bring those forward in a means that engages people.”
—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications