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Oregon Wine Research Institute Refocuses Efforts

New program coordinator Mark Chien will oversee work but not set priorities

by Peter Mitham
Incoming program coordinator Mark Chien begins work today at the Oregon Wine Research Institute.
Corvallis, Ore.—Mark Chien officially takes the reins as program coordinator of the Oregon Wine Research Institute today, but the organization he joins has changed greatly from the top-down institute envisioned six years ago.

“Mark’s role will be to coordinate grant applications, webinars, programmatic activities—but he’s not going to be directing any of that in the sense that he will call the shots, so to speak,” David Beck, chair of the Oregon Wine Board research committee, told Wines & Vines recently.

No more director
During a review and restructuring of the research institute’s organization, leadership made the decision to dispense with a director for the institute and move toward a more collaborative structure with clear relationships between the various stakeholders.

“The concept of a director ceased to exist,” Beck explained. “We vested the scientific direction of the whole operation in a committee of the whole of the faculty.”

Meanwhile the Oregon Wine Board, through a standing committee on research policy that includes institute faculty, will set priorities for the 10 faculty members appointed to the institute, who will continue to operate within Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The arrangement allows industry, which contributes to the institute through the wine board’s annual research budget of $270,000 (it approved funding this week for nine projects ranging from Patty Skinkis’ work on Pinot Noir crop load to Walt Mahaffey’s work on powdery mildew), to have greater input regarding research activities, in partnership with the university.

Program coordinator role
Chien, who was selected for the institute earlier this year following a national search process (see “Oregon Institute Hires Program Coordinator”), will serve as a linchpin of sorts, overseeing program activities without setting the priorities that determine what those programs are.

The scenario aims to address the conclusions of a report Bill Nelson (a former president of Wine America who served as executive director of the Oregon Winegrowers Association until 1994) prepared at the request of the OWRI following the resignation in 2012 of the institute’s one and only director, Neil Shay (see “Oregon Wine Institute Mulls Future”). 

Nelson’s report praised the research institute’s potential but highlighted a division between the university’s and industry’s understanding of the institute and their respective roles. Nelson recommended that the research institute be part of the academic function of the university (the primary owner of the institute) but collaborate more with industry.

The new structure works toward this middle ground, ensuring Chien and the institute’s faculty are entirely within the university but subject to a standing committee that includes representation from industry and faculty.

It’s also the culmination of a process that has seen oversight of the institute shift from a largely administrative position to one focused on developing research relationships and, now, a role no longer vested in a single person but the individual stakeholders.

 “With the original version of OWRI...if you drew an organizational chart, it was just covered with dotted lines, so nobody knew who was responsible for anything,” Beck said. Now “there are no dotted lines, it’s a very clear set of relationships—and a very clear set of responsibilities—we think.”

The cleaner structure promises to make the institute more competitive when it comes to applying for grants.

“It certainly does make it easier to organize larger multi-disciplinary, multi-investigator projects now that we have a committee responsible for conducting the research,” Beck said. “It should make us more competitive for grants.”

Renewed priorities
Tom Danowski, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board, is optimistic about Chien’s arrival, and reiterated his hopes for greater collaboration with researchers at Washington State University.

“We have governance, we have talent, we also have some renewed priorities,” he said. “There will be opportunities for intelligent collaboration with Washington State researchers, where that is sensible.”

But there’s also room for continued evolution of the institute as the new model is tested in practice and the industry changes. The new structure includes a strategic advisory group comprised of representatives of both the institute and industry charged with looking toward the future.

“I’m not sure I would necessarily say that 10 or 15 years from now it’s going to look like it does now; in fact, in all honesty, I hope it evolves substantially,” Beck said. “We want to continue building this to have the kind of track record of accomplishment that one finds at Cornell or UC Davis or Washington State.”

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