Vanderbilt researchers are excelling in the race for extramural funds, but there are roadblocks ahead.
by David Salisbury
photo by Neil Brake
Have you ever wondered how the drug Viagra was discovered? Or how MRI machines, which can map internal organs and monitor brain activity without invasive surgery, came about? Or who first learned that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, and has begun erasing information about its own origins?
These are just a few of the scientific discoveries that can be credited to work done at the nation’s research universities – work that is advancing life as we know and enjoy it today. We take these advancements for granted, but they don’t come cheap. Vanderbilt is one of hundreds of universities competing for extramural funds to support such research, and has proven in recent years to be quite successful at it.
In fiscal year 2006-07, thousands of faculty scientists, engineers and physician/researchers working in Vanderbilt laboratories received slightly more than half a billion dollars to pursue studies in a wide range of fields, from pharmacology to astronomy, neuroscience to nanoscience, developmental biology to special education.
The money to support such research comes from the government, corporations and non-profit foundations, with the lion’s share coming from the federal government. A number of economic studies have concluded that this has been an excellent investment.
But federal research funding has never been an entitlement. University scientists compete, often fiercely, for the money they need to conduct their research. Generally, panels of scientists rank proposals for their intellectual and scientific merit, and only those given the highest scores are approved. Researchers must submit detailed proposals that can take weeks or months to prepare, all the while knowing that less than one in three proposals are funded.
Ironically, at a time when as much as one-third of the nation’s economic growth is based on R&D, the federal government’s support for basic research has become less and less reliable. For the last five years, federal funding for basic research has stagnated when adjusted for inflation, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nevertheless, Vanderbilt researchers have been remarkably successful. In the last five years external research funding on the campus side has nearly doubled, rising from $74 million in FY02 to $143 million in FY07. Over the same period, research funding at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has surged from $245 million to $390 million.
That is substantially better than most of Vanderbilt’s peer institutions. As a result, the university’s ranking in the national competition for federal research dollars has continued to climb, breaking into the top 25 in 2004 and reaching 23rd last year. At the same time, Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine has risen to 10th in the nation in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“What is important is not our national ranking, but whether we are supporting our faculty well enough so they have the means to accomplish all that they are capable of,” said Dennis Hall, associate provost for research and graduate education. “If we are not there, we are certainly very close.”
No single factor can explain the university’s outstanding performance. It reflects the efforts and accomplishments of hundreds of faculty researchers and has been shaped by a number of strategic and tactical decisions that the university has made over the last 10 to 20 years.
One factor has been Vanderbilt’s success in fostering interdisciplinary collaborations. For some time, scientists have realized that many of the most exciting new research areas require an interdisciplinary approach, but this has proven difficult for universities to put into practice, in part because of their departmental structure.
Vanderbilt has had a natural advantage. At many research universities, the medical center is located miles from campus, making collaboration more difficult. Here, the medical center is an integral part of campus.
“It’s not just our geography,” insists Jeffrey Balser, VUMC’s associate vice chancellor for research. “You can find plenty of places where the medical center is on the same campus and they don’t work together. We do. I think that is very important, and it has been very important to our growth.”
The $95 million Medical Research Building III, completed in 2002, is a brick-and-mortar testament to the campus’s commitment to collaboration. It serves as a physical bridge between the medical center and the campus and provides offices, laboratories and a natural meeting place for researchers from all areas.
In 2001, the university invested more than $100 million of its own money in the Academic Venture Capital Fund. It provided start-up funding for 11 interdisciplinary research centers that have boosted campus researchers’ participation in hot research areas such as neuroscience, nanoscience and proteomics. Center directors also were given resources to encourage departments to hire faculty interested in interdisciplinary studies.
One beneficiary of the program was Assistant Professor of Physics James Dickerson, who works in the field of nanoscience. Last summer he received a $360,000 grant from the Department of Energy to study how the magnetic properties and the basic structure of a material change as its size gets smaller and smaller – research that could lead to improvements in the efficiency of electromagnetic devices.
The drug discovery program, directed by Jeff Conn, the Lee Limbird Professor of Pharmacology, is an exciting example of the research initiatives being midwifed by the new interdisciplinary centers, in this case, the Institute for Chemical Biology. It is one of the first university programs to succeed in what has been the sole domain of industry.
In return for funding, the five team members agree to produce novel agents that are suitable for pre-clinical testing. They currently have two large grants – $4.5 million from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to develop a new treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and $4.5 million from Seaside Pharmacology to develop a new treatment for autism – and are in discussion with a number of other companies to set up additional contracts.
Team member Craig Lindsley came to Vanderbilt from Merck & Co., Inc., “largely because the industry has become too risk-adverse to develop really novel drugs,” he said. “The science just isn’t there anymore. A lot of people seem to feel the same way – we are flooded with applications from top people.”
Another key to Vanderbilt’s success has been aggressive recruitment of both top junior scientists and veteran researchers.
Sharon Weiss, assistant professor of electrical engineering, is a sterling example of the type of young faculty the university has been attracting. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Rochester in 2005, Weiss had three job offers in addition to the one from Vanderbilt.
“My research is very interdisciplinary and I was impressed by Vanderbilt’s interdisciplinary atmosphere,” she said. This year, Weiss received an NSF Career Award, a five-year $400,000 grant targeted at outstanding young faculty researchers. The grant will support her development of a new nanotechnology – porous silicon waveguides – used to detect biological and chemical materials.
Gregory Mundy, an established expert in bone disease, moved here from San Antonio in 2006 to assume the John A. Oates Chair in Translational Medicine. He currently has five grants totaling $2.4 million. In one project, his research group has identified a compound that causes bone fractures to heal in animals without failure in 10 weeks, instead of the normal 14 weeks. They are almost ready to test it in humans.
The university also has lured entire research groups from peer institutions. A prime example was the hiring of one of the pioneers in the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – John Gore – and his research team from Yale University in 2002. They set up the Vanderbilt Institute of Imaging Science, which is equipped with state-of-the-art instruments. In 2006, the institute moved into a new facility constructed with help from a $4 million grant from NIH, and last year it received $2.2 million from the National Cancer Institute to develop new imaging techniques to study cancer in small laboratory animals.
State-of-the-art facilities of this sort not only benefit existing campus scientists, but also help attract researchers such as Owen Jones, professor of law and biological sciences, who came to Vanderbilt in 2004. He is collaborating with neuroscientist René Marois on a new area of study: the intersection of law and neuroscience. When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation considered a major initiative in this area, Jones was one of the researchers the foundation approached. The result was a $10 million multi-university grant, with which Jones co-directs a research network studying how the brain makes decisions related to crime and punishment.
Vanderbilt experts also have created a number of “steeples of excellence” in specific fields of study.
Under the leadership of James Guthrie and Matthew Springer, professors of public policy and education, the Peabody College-based National Center on Performance Incentives has become the foremost center in the country on the issue of pay for performance in teaching. It has a number of relevant grants, including $10 million from the Department of Education to conduct the first real-world test of the effects of giving teachers monetary awards for improving student performance.
Similarly, David Kosson, chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering, has built that department into a leading academic center on the issue of nuclear waste management. He and Professor of Environmental Engineering Charles Powers co-direct a $6 million-per-year program called the Consortium for Risk Evaluation and Stakeholder Participation (CRESP) that provides the Department of Energy with scientific and technical support on the environmental management of radioactive wastes from defense missions and nuclear energy, as well as fosters public participation in the process. One of the group’s current assignments is to prepare a white paper on the options for nuclear waste management for the next U.S. president.
While federal funding remains the prime driver of campus research, corporate support is becoming increasingly important. As a result, Vanderbilt has been reforming its procedures for working with “for-profit” organizations.
Among other measures, the university has been strengthening its patenting and licensing program. Last year, royalty income from technology licensing reached a record $8.4 million. This fiscal year to date, royalty income is on track to set a new record. Several current success stories include Read180, a system for teaching kids how to read; reusable highway crash cushions; an electronic physician order-entry system; and a natural pesticide/insecticide. “Our goal is to join the elite group of U.S. universities that earn more than $20 million per year in technology licensing income,” said Chris McKinney, director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Enterprise Development.
The medical center has a long history of conducting clinical trials for companies, but it also is seeing a significant up-tick in corporate sponsorship of basic science. Together, they account for a doubling in support from for-profit organizations in the last two years.
The jump was fostered by a streamlining and simplification of relevant procedures orchestrated by Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Gordon Bernard. Among other measures, Vanderbilt’s Institutional Review Board has been revamped so that requests are now answered promptly, in three to four weeks in most cases. Similarly, the process for preparing corporate contracts has been streamlined.
These steps must have impressed officials at NIH. Last fall they gave Vanderbilt a $45 million award to create a new Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, directed by Bernard and charged with taking a comprehensive approach to improving and shortening the process by which laboratory discoveries are made into therapies that benefit patients.
Despite Vanderbilt’s successes, serious challenges lay ahead. Though Congress doubled the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003, helping to stimulate tremendous advances in the understanding of fundamental biological processes, most of the potential benefits are still in the pipeline and being threatened by a subsequent stagnation in funding levels. That translates into a 13 percent drop in purchasing power. Continued flat funding levels at the NIH threaten to freeze out the young scientists who have been trained in emerging fields such as genomics and proteomics and are poised to make major breakthroughs in the immediate future.
In 2005, Congress passed the American Competitiveness Initiative, which called for a doubling in support for research in the physical sciences from 2006 to 2016. So far, however, these increases have not materialized.
These and other developments have caused competition to increase for all types of extramural funding. Universities will have to be creative in order to continue their success in obtaining highly sought-after research dollars, according to Marois.
“The Vanderbilt research community has recognized that new scientific breakthroughs often occur at the intersections of traditional fields of science. This university is a leader in crossing over those traditional boundaries, in (nurturing) new interdisciplinary research,” Marois said. “Funding will follow good research.”