The University of Texas Medical School at Houston The University of Texas Medical School at Houston
March 28, 2009 | from the Office of Dean Giuseppe Colasurdo

Distributed on Fridays via e-mail to all Medical School employees, students, residents, and postdoctoral fellows, UT 2 Me is Dean Giuseppe Colasurdo's weekly update of news and items of interest. He also welcomes feedback through this two-way communication.

As we continue our budget discussions with the department chairs and DMOs this week, I want to congratulate our program directors and seniors for a spectacular Match Day, which was held on Webber Plaza Thursday. This was, according to the National Resident Matching Program, the largest and most successful Match Day in history in terms of number of residency positions offered and filled.

Of our matched seniors, 56 percent are staying in Texas, 30 percent will stay at UT-Houston, and 37 percent are pursuing residencies in primary care. The top four specialties for our soon-to-be graduates are internal medicine, anesthesiology, obstetrics/gynecology, and pediatrics – three of which are primary care. I want to thank President Larry Kaiser; Gene Vaughan, our development board chair; Dr. Margaret McNeese; and all of those who made this Match Day so special.

We will now continue our discussion about research, which remains a top priority for our school, with Dr. Peter Davies, executive vice president for research. This question-and-answer session follows and builds upon what Dr. John Byrne addressed last week.

  1. What are the top three objectives of your office?

The goal of our office is to support the university’s research programs and its researchers. Although there are a number of ways in which we do this, there are two key elements. The first is to provide the researchers with the infrastructure that they need to actually carry out their research. This ranges all the way from physical infrastructure, such as vivaria; core labs; and chemical, biological, and radioactive waste disposal programs to required regulatory infrastructure, such as the IRB’s and IACUC that provide the necessary regulatory oversight for human subjects and animal research. This enabling infrastructure also includes groups like our Office of Technology Management that assists our faculty in realizing the commercial potential for some of their research. I like to think our goal is to provide our researchers with a safe and supportive environment that reflects our institutional commitment to the ethical and responsible conduct of research.  

The provision of support services, however, is only one part of our commitment to supporting research at the university. A second role for the Office of Research is to promote research at our university by providing support for the types of research programs that are sometimes hard for individual researchers to develop on their own. What I am referring to here is the support of inter-disciplinary or inter-institutional research programs that enable our researchers to cut across institutional barriers, both within our university and between ourselves and some of our academic neighbors, and develop truly outstanding multi-investigator collaborative research programs. This second aspect of our responsibilities has become increasingly important as federal funding agencies place a greater and greater emphasis on the value of “team” science for tackling certain types of problems. This focus is not in any way to diminish the importance of investigator-initiated individual research programs. These are still the heart of the research program of any institution that aspires to greatness. Rather our position is that in addition to these traditional single PI programs, there are great opportunities for us to engage in research partnerships and programs that leverage the strength of not only our own faculty but also those of our neighbors to compete effectively for prized large new research programs. We feel that it is critical that the university commit time, effort, and resources to support this type of activity and that the Office of Research is a logical home for this aspect of our research programs.

We have a talented and dedicated staff within the Office of Research that works tirelessly to promote our university’s goal of supporting research and researchers in their efforts to advance the health sciences through the conduct of research.

2.      How do the goals of your office support the mission and goals of the Medical School?
It is very interesting to consider the range of research carried out within the Health Science Center and the role that research plays in the mission and goals of each of our schools. The faculty of the Health Science Center conduct  research in a variety of different areas, including the clinical sciences, the population sciences, the information sciences, and the laboratory or biomedical sciences.  Some schools, such as our School of Biomedical Informatics, are heavily focused on one aspect of this agenda. Others, such as the Medical School, have a much broader mandate for the conduct of research. Our Medical School researchers have particular strengths in the areas of clinical  and basic biomedical sciences so the goal of the Office of Research is particularly focused on support for these types of programs for Medical School researchers. I like to think that the goals of the Medical School and the goals of the Office of Research are completely aligned. We share a commitment both to provide support for  the full range of research activities and to promote new research opportunities by facilitating the development of new programs. One additional element in this partnership that has been particularly important in the last few years has been our shared commitment to work together to recruit talented and committed researchers to the Medical School and the university.

3.      What are you doing differently in your office this year? What is new?
One of the great challenges that face all of us in research is that ours is not a static field, it is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of opportunity and challenge. Some of the facets in this kaleidoscope represent important changes in the science itself, new discoveries, and new ideas that open up large new areas of research. Other facets have more to do with external forces, such as changes in the sources and types of funding available for research and changes in the regulatory environment that impact research and researchers. There are also important changes in workforce and changes in social and political attitudes. All of these moving pieces have to be recognized and factored into the consideration of all of our researchers as they manage their careers and their programs.

In the last few years we have passed through a very difficult period in terms of the conduct of science and research in America. We have been living and working in an environment where the support for research has been very sparse, the priority accorded to research has been slight, and the amount of intrusive oversight in the form of government regulation has been massive.  Our responsibility in the Office of Research has been to help our researchers make it through this very difficult time, to manage, to the extent possible, the impact of the regulatory burdens on our individual researchers, and to search for those particular areas of opportunity that are always embedded within the research enterprise. I think our university and its researchers can take great pride in the fact that our research programs have flourished during this very difficult era. Our research programs have grown both in size and scope every year over the last 5 years, and our faculty have distinguished themselves by their success in obtaining very competitive research grants and programs during this very difficult time. We have been able to attract great researchers to our university and to open spectacular new research facilities at the Medical School and elsewhere in the university. These are achievements that reflect our commitment to the future of our university as a center of research and scholarship.

We are now embarking on a new era in health sciences research.  Many of us hope it will be a much better era for our researchers and their programs. This is never certain, but what we can be sure is that it will be different. The new challenge for the Office of Research in the next few years will be to figure out as quickly as possible what we need to do to help our researchers thrive in this new era. We need to identify those scientific and social problems that are going to pose the greatest opportunities for our researchers and then provide the resources, facilities, and other support services that will enable our faculty to succeed in their research endeavors. We still don’t fully understand the impact that our changed economy and how our government’s response to this challenge will impact our research enterprise, but we do know one critical factor and that is that success in this new era is going to be based on rigorous competition for sparse resources. One thing we do know is that our university can best help its researchers by providing them with the best opportunities possible to compete effectively for extramural research resources.  The administration and the faculty will need to work together closely to identify those areas and those issues where we can be most successful in developing and promoting programs that are recognized as leaders at a national level. These are the programs, both individual-investigator programs and research teams, that are going to be most successful in securing the resources, both funding and personnel, that are critical to progress in research.

4.      What role will your office play in the future of the Medical School?
As outlined above, we intend to continue our close partnership with the Dean, with the department chairs, and with the faculty of the Medical School in promoting the research agenda of the Medical School and its researchers.

5.      Which accomplishments of your office are you most proud?
A described above, over the last few years our university and its researchers have grown in size and stature during an intensely difficult period. This success has been reflected not only in the major new programmatic research grants awards, things like our CTSA award or the Traumatic Brain Injury award, but also in programs that reflect our outstanding investigators. Our success in receiving major program project awards in cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disease, the success of our faculty in being awarded very prestigious Pew Awards, NIH Pioneer Awards and Superiority awards from the Governor’s Office all speak to the depth and vitality of the Medical School’s researchers and their programs. The Office of Research takes pride in providing the support and sometimes the organizational framework that have allowed these great things to happen.  But in the end, we never lose sight of the fact that the engine that makes this all happen is not just the stars but the large number of talented and dedicated researchers, our faculty, the fellows, the students, and the professional research staff who do the day-in day-out work that makes this all possible. It is the new grant awards, the K- awards, the competitive renewals that provide the foundation for our success. I think the greatest source of pride for the office is the extent to which we provide support and assistance to this critical part the university’s research program.

6.      Please speak to the comment that research brings in a negative margin for the Medical School.
It is often said that “economics is a dismal science.” I think that this opinion reflects the fact that economics often forces us to face the unpleasant aspects to the logistics of life. I applaud Kevin Dillon for his efforts to remind us of the unforgiving realities that underwrite our operations as a university and as researchers. The foundation of the concern about the overall costs of research at academic centers, such as universities, are generally widely acknowledged and reflect the fact that our research funding does not support the full cost of operating a large institutional research program. Many researchers react strongly to this issue because they are understandably focused on the economics of their successfully funded research programs, programs where the recovery of indirects and ancillary revenues (such as licenses) may well offset the unit cost of the research. The broader problem is that the overall research program of a university like ours is comprised of highly productive research programs and some that are less productive. This latter group includes new faculty who are launching research programs and have not attained a level of self-sufficiency in terms of their operations. Start-up packages, which are the standard in the field, are very expensive and can take years to recover economically once the researchers program is fully funded. In addition, there are numerous examples of faculty whose research programs lapse for one reason or another, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for long periods of time.  The expenses associated with these less than optimal operations, not only salaries but facilities, space, resources, etc. are included in the institution’s overall cost for the operation of its research program.

A second factor that impacts the economics of research is that the actual indirect cost recoveries supplied by sponsors to compensate universities for the infrastructure cost of the research do not allow for full cost recovery. Our negotiated federal indirect cost rate for research is 50 percent at present. This rate is based on negotiations with the Department of Health and Human Services that includes a detailed analysis of our expenses and the amount of space that we allocate to research and researchers. Even this 50 percent figure is in fact an underestimate of the real cost, but it is relatively close. However, we as an institution actually recover an average of about 20 percent indirect costs on our sponsored research. This is because certain categories of expenses don’t qualify; many agencies including not-for-profit foundations and the state of Texas do not allow for indirects, and we offer a discounted indirect cost rate (30 percent) for non-federal sponsored projects. One goal of our university must be to devise ways to improve the recovery of indirect expenses on all categories of sponsored projects.

The critical point here, as Dr. Kaiser enunciated so clearly in his recent town hall meeting, is not whether we do or do not make a profit on research, of course we don’t.  That is a given. The critical point is that we as a university are completely committed to research as a key part of our mission. We all of us, faculty, administration, staff, and students, share a commitment to supporting research and seeing our university serve as a contributor to the health and welfare of people through research. That is our mission. What we all of us have to do is to manage our overall institutional economics and priorities in ways that allow us to balance simultaneously and support our educational, research, and clinical service activities. This is the challenge that Dr. Kaiser, Kevin Dillon, the deans, and all of the rest of us who are researchers at this university must struggle with on a daily basis. These important issues require us all to work together to understand the challenges and work together to find the solutions.

I want to thank Dr. Davies and his commitment to support Medical School research.

Have a great weekend,


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