Tar Heels, millennials and funding

Heels

I’m so excited about how great the men’s and womens’ teams have done. And the Davidson basketball game was thrilling. March madness is magical when we’re in it.

Our millennial students

Last week, I mentioned that I had just read a book titled the Millennials Go to College (Howe and Strauss, LifeCourse Associates, 2007). It is a fascinating glimpse into today’s students who, the authors claim, are way different from boomers—including most faculty members. Millennials learn differently (with your laptops, cell phones, teams), allocate time in different ways (you multi-task amazingly well, according to the statistics), and the authors say you won’t put up with being bored the way many of us were in school. A really interesting YouTube video A Vision of Students Today brings this home. (It’s always dangerous to generalize about groups so I apologize for doing so.) According to Howe and Strauss, more than other generations, millennials will be attracted by personalized attention and recognition in the recruitment process. The question is: how are we in the SPH going to interact with today’s students? What should we do differently? We need students to work with us to turn our ways of teaching into your ways of learning. How’s that for a big challenge!

Black cloud over NIH funding

In a recent letter to the DTH, one of our students wondered why we need a gift of $50 million when we received about $54 million in NIH grants and contracts in 2006-2007. It’s a reasonable question. The answer is complicated.

For one thing, grants aren’t guaranteed. That $54 million we got last year isn’t a sure thing for this year or next year. It’s not even a strong likelihood. It depends on the annual vagaries of the federal budget, which change from year to year. With the war in Iraq and other priorities of this President, NIH and most other health agencies are suffering, with flat budgets or worse. Because of out-year commitments, a flat budget is a cut budget. As the NIH budget tightens, money is harder to get. Junior investigators are hit especially hard, but even established investigators are having a hard time. Tight budgets tend to make reviewers more conservative, making it more difficult to get resources to pursue ideas that may appear riskier but could have greater payoff.

Elite private institutions have large endowments that help them weather storms associated with budget downturns. UNC never has had endowments like Harvard, Yale and Penn or even UVA, Michigan and many other public universities. These endowments often provide resources to help faculty get pilot funding necessary to compete successfully for grant funding. Without pilot funding, most applications are dead on arrival.

A Broken Pipeline,” a report released recently by a group of organizations, including Harvard, Duke and Ohio State, contains very sobering facts.

brokenpipeline.gifnih2a.gif
  • 5 years of flat funding for NIH coupled with inflation have added up to a 13% drop in real purchasing power for research. What does this mean for us? Our faculty may have to submit their grants 2 or 3 times before they get funded. It’s a demoralizing process. Each cycle between submissions threatens their staffs and delays discoveries that may benefit people. Some investigators won’t get funded at all. We are trying to buffer the in-between time for faculty, but if the situation gets much worse, we won’t be able to help everyone.nih-chart.gif
  • A cascading effect
    As the report said, the overall success rate for NIH research project grants dropped from 32% in 1999 to 24% in 2007; more than three of every four research proposals are not funded. This trend represents a clog in the system that is causing researchers to abandon promising work, downsize labs, and spend more time searching for other financial support.

How the Gillingses’ gift and other gifts help

The gift from Dennis and Joan Gillings gives us an endowment. Much of the gift will be invested so that it reaps benefits for years to come. An endowment is the best hedge against the future. This isn’t about getting bigger although it is about getting better and better. It also is about pure survival. The funds will support Gillings Innovation Laboratories (GILs) to solve big public health problems. Our researchers will be funded by an internal competitive process that, when we finish its beta test, will be significantly shorter than the NIH process. We will encourage rather than discourage innovative ideas. We also want applicants to provide support for students to work on projects. GILs will help SPH researchers obtain critical pilot data. There are other activities associated with the gift as well (http://www.sph.unc.edu/accelerate). The Gillingses’ gift represents the generosity of two people with deep connections to the SPH. We’re grateful that they and many other donors care about and support our mission. As the Federal health budget shrinks, these gifts become more important. These are private not corporate gifts.

Good vs. bad money

Most of us in the school of public health don’t think all dollars are alike. This is like sensitivity and specificity in epidemiology. You can set the cut-point at different places, and there are implications of where it is set. If we were to say we’d accept no corporate funding, then, we’d make no mistakes by choosing to partner with organizations that might some day disappoint us. But we’d also miss out on huge opportunities. If we took any corporate opportunity that came along, we’d risk tainting our good name and possibly tainting research results as well when we associate with questionable companies. A case in point was played out last week when it was reported in the New York Times that Claudia Henschke’s research on lung cancer screening, published in the highly esteemed New England Journal of Medicine, was funded by the cigarette industry. Now people wonder if that affected her results. Most of us agree that research funded by the cigarette industry is not research we want to do. Across the school, I have been impressed by how different one faculty member is from another, and how strongly each defends their right to pursue their own priorities. I don’t micromanage individuals’ decisions about what research to undertake or where to seek funding once we agree on certain foundational rules, e.g. we don’t take tobacco money. Some faculty members have worked effectively with a range of companies for many years; others are not comfortable doing so. One of the great things about academia is that there is freedom to pursue different strategies within ethical and legal boundaries.

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