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Cluster Hires: Frequently Asked Questions

Topical Discussion and Finding Collaborators

Will ORE or the provost help faculty find collaborators?

Yes. Applicants looking for collaborations are encouraged to attend topical discussions now under way.

Is participating in a topical discussion required?

No. Faculty may self-organize and submit a preliminary proposal in response to the data science RFP or subsequent open topic RFP. The topical discussions are optional. 

How will information about the grand challenge–cluster hire initiative be disseminated?

Communications about the initiatives are posted on the Office of the Provost website. The provost will periodically send emails to all faculty and staff with updates.

It seems that the grand challenge–cluster hire initiative is faculty driven. How does this align with the strategic planning conducted by academic departments?

Faculty, including department heads and other departmental leadership, are encouraged to participate in topical discussions and to submit proposals that align with their strategic vision and planning for their department.

How do the cluster hiring and grand challenge initiative work together?

Cluster hires are one tactic for solving or working toward solving a grand challenge of societal importance. With the help of administrative units, teams must integrate new hires with existing faculty and areas of strengths, work with relevant partners, and strategically utilize the research supports provided as a part of this initiative and other programs offered through the Office of Research and Engagement.

At what point in the cluster hiring process will the related grand challenges be determined?

Preliminary proposals and full proposals for the cluster hires should include an initial description of the grand challenge they plan to work toward solving. Selected teams will refine their grand challenge concepts during the first six months of the project.

Can I get involved in a grand challenge later?

Yes. Groups working on grand challenges will have open membership. Faculty who can contribute to solving the grand challenge may join at any time.


Proposal Preparation and Review Process

Can faculty apply for more than one grand challenge–cluster hire initiative?

Yes. There is no limit on the number of applications in which a faculty member participates or leads.

How many pages will the full proposal be?

Additional instructions will be shared with those who are invited to submit a full proposal based on their preliminary proposal.

Do proposals need to cross colleges?

Proposals must be multidisciplinary and must include faculty from at least three departments or colleges and show consultation with each of the units, schools, and colleges included in the proposal. We anticipate that strong applications will include substantive participation from multiple colleges.

In what capacity is the UT Institute of Agriculture eligible to support the grand challenge–cluster hire initiative? Does UTIA count as a participating department or college?

Proposal alignment with UTIA can be a strength. UTIA may participate as a collaborator on a proposal and will count as one of the three required departments or colleges.

What is the value of external partners?

External partners may help demonstrate the societal importance and external value of the proposal.

Is Oak Ridge National Laboratory doing a parallel exercise as part of the data science cluster hire?

No. Applicants interested in the data science cluster hire are encouraged to engage ORNL as they prepare their preliminary proposal. ORNL will provide input during the review process.

What is the relationship of the data science task force to the other cluster hires?

The data science task force will review proposals related to the data science cluster hire. Once its recommendations are made to the leadership team, the task force will dissolve. New task forces will be created to review proposals for other clusters. Membership in the task forces may overlap.

When will information regarding the selected data science proposals be made generally available?

Information will not be available until after proposals for clusters 2 and 3 are due.

Will selection of cluster hire proposals be based on popularity of ideas?

No. Popularity is not a consideration in the review process. The task force will consider how well a proposal builds on existing research strengths, its potential to make UT a leader in the field, its alignment with national and state priorities, and—for data science—the proposal’s alignment with ORNL priorities.

After the pre-proposal stage, will the task force suggest partnerships among the applicants?

The task force may do so at its discretion.

Who will make the final decision about the cluster hire proposals?

The chancellor.


Resources and Budget

What are the potential funding sources?

Potential funding sources will depend on the topics proposed.

How many clusters will there be?

There will be three clusters in the first round; more may be announced after those are fully staffed.

How many faculty hires will be made in each cluster?

Six faculty members will be hired in the data science cluster and six in each of the other clusters. We expect the six hires to include a full professor, an associate professor, and four assistant professors.

Is there a budgetary limit for the cluster hires?

In the full proposal, faculty are encouraged to request the amount of funding needed to recruit appropriate candidates.

Is the funding available only to hire new faculty?

Applicants submitting cluster hire proposals should request the funds to hire six new faculty members. Clusters may also include support for six graduate research assistants, six undergraduate students, and two postdoctoral candidates or research scientists. The support for the GRAs, undergraduate students, and postdoctoral candidates may be requested in full for years 1 and 2 with decreasing support in years 3 through 5 as these positions become grant supported.

The Open Topic Cluster Hire

Is Oak Ridge National Laboratory required to participate?

No. Engagement of external partners, including ORNL, is at the applicant’s discretion.

Is the team restricted to UT Knoxville faculty, or can it include researchers from our strategic partners?

There are no restrictions on affiliations or strategic partnerships. Applications may include strategic partners as a part of the planning or leadership team. However, resources and faculty lines must support UT faculty.

Should I include supporting letters alongside my proposal?

Letters of support or participation from external partners are welcome. Explaining how colleagues from an external partner organization intend to collaborate with the proposed cluster hire will help the review committee evaluate your proposal. Please do not include letters from internal partners.

What sort of faculty staffing should be proposed?

Generally, applications should propose one full professor, two associate professors, and three assistant professors. Adjustments based on need and vision will be welcomed and assessed.

Who will be considered the leader of the cluster?

Applicants should propose what they think is best for the cluster hire. Some applications may position the full professor hired as a part of the cluster to be the leader. Others may identify a leader or co-leader who is already at UT.

For the purpose of corresponding about the proposal, an existing UT faculty member must be identified as the lead contact.

What is the maximum budget and what should be included?

Applicants should propose the budget necessary to support the cluster for five years. This should include faculty salaries and benefits, start-up costs, and funding for postdocs and GRAs if requested. Other budget items essential to the cluster may be proposed.

How firm do I need to be with my budget numbers? 

Applicants should use their best guess to estimate salaries and other costs and provide documentation of their rationale. As with any project, costs may change. The Knox News salary lookup table is a helpful resource.

How will the review process work?

A multidisciplinary review committee of eight to 12 faculty members nominated by the deans will review all proposals using the following criteria:

  1. The extent to which the proposal will build our reputation for research excellence
  2. The extent to which the proposal will provide a return on the university’s investment through increased research expenditures, faculty awards, or other measures of academic success
  3. The extent to which the proposal will address a grand challenge faced by 21st-century global societies
  4. The extent to which the proposal will have a positive impact on transdisciplinary collaboration across the campus
  5. The extent to which the proposal will build upon existing research strengths at UT
  6. Feasibility of the proposed cluster structure, hiring plan, and organization
  7. Participation of at least three colleges or departments in a multidisciplinary team (required)

The review committee will rank acceptable proposals.

Acceptable proposals will be shared with the relevant deans, associate deans for research, and department heads, who will be invited to score them, judge their feasibility, and share their level of enthusiasm for each.

This review committee’s scores and rankings, along with the input from the deans, associate deans for research, and department heads, will be shared with the provost, vice chancellor for research, and chancellor, who will make the final selection.

Should I talk to my dean, ADR, or department head?

Applicants are strongly encouraged to discuss their application with their deans, associate deans for research, and department heads before submission and to share application materials with these representatives of any units included in the proposal.

Deans, associate deans for research, and department heads will be invited to weigh in on proposals during the review process.

Can I talk to someone about my ideas?

Kimberly Eck is not involved in the review process. She understands the goals of the program and is available to provide feedback. Contact her at