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March 21, 2005

Health Center Research To
Follow Direction of NIH Roadmap

Marc Lalande, assistant dean for research and planning coordination at the Health Center
Marc Lalande, assistant dean for research and planning coordination at the Health Center. Lalande was appointed to the new position as part of a reconfiguration of research operations.

Photo by Peter Morenus

The Health Center will adopt the principles put forth in a National Institutes of Health document designed to guide research initiatives and funding.

The NIH Roadmap identifies three main areas: new pathways to discovery, research teams of the future, and re-engineering the clinical research enterprise.

The Health Center is reconfiguring its research organization to take full advantage of the document.

“It’s always exciting to look at things in a new way,” says Marc Lalande, professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology and assistant dean for research and planning coordination. “We have a vision of what the future looks like in terms of research, and we’re adapting to what we see as a new model of funding at NIH.”

Lalande was appointed assistant dean in the fall, one of two new positions that are part of the research reconfiguration. Dr. Henry Kranzler, professor of psychiatry, has been appointed assistant dean for clinical research.

Both assistant deans report to Dr. Richard Berlin, associate dean for research planning and coordination, a position that Lalande will take over next January.

The reconfiguration began with an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges, and development of a strategic research plan and a business plan. The assessment was done by the three deans, together with Susan Reisine, professor and head of the Department of Community Medicine and Behavioral Sciences and associate dean for research in the School of Dental Medicine.

The strategic plan flows easily from the Health Center’s original strategic plan, which was implemented from 1998 to 2004. That plan created four centers – molecular medicine, microbial pathogenesis, vascular biology, and immunotherapy of cancer and infectious disease – and two departments: neuroscience and genetics and developmental biology.

The first strategic plan positioned the Health Center securely for the future, and officials say the return on investment was positive. During the period 1998 to 2004, the Health Center invested $68.3 million in faculty, services, supplies, and equipment, and reaped a total of $84.8 million in direct and indirect support from new grants awarded.

Projecting that grants and cost of salaries and fringe benefits will continue to grow at 4 percent – a figure taken from the actual growth during the first strategic plan – the outlook remains positive as far as fiscal year 2012.

The projections also take into account the new indirect cost recovery rate, which has increased from 45 percent to 48 percent.

“The bottom line is that supporting research is a good investment,” says Lalande. “Now we need to maintain this investment while keeping an eye on future trends in research funding.

A number of changes are occurring, he says. “NIH is funneling money into the NIH Roadmap. We want our research program to reflect that reality.”

Translational research – research findings that can be moved from bench to bedside – takes on increased emphasis under the roadmap. Health Center faculty members are already committed to integrating basic and clinical research and that initiative will be accentuated.

In addition, the drive to create more interdisciplinary research teams will be highlighted both in recruitment and in assignment of resources, such as space.

Culture change will also have an impact on the success of the reconfiguration, Lalande says.

He identifies four components as critical:

  • Interdisciplinary collaboration. In the past, researchers were rewarded for individual efforts; now team research covering a number of disciplines will become the model.
  • Departments must adopt a broader, more institution-wide outlook. Departments will soon be evaluated on the strengths they bring to the institutional research component.
  • Research administrators need to adopt “best practices” in grants management and financial analysis.
  • Finally, performance metrics must be developed. “We need to know if we’re being successful,” Lalande says. “If so, the metrics will show an increasing number of grants involving multi-disciplinary investigators.”

The Health Center has another advantage in aligning itself with the Roadmap: 21st Century UConn. That plan calls for a new research building to be constructed on campus and for older research facilities to be rejuvenated.

The Academic Research Building played a critical role in the first research strategic plan by aiding recruitment, creating additional space for the four centers and two new departments, and fostering collaboration and research synergies.

A committee of faculty is working with an architect to design the new building. The design, intended to foster interdisciplinary thematic research, is expected to include open lab spaces of between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet.

Lalande says the new research building will help with recruitment. “It fits into our vision of the future,” he says.

“New technologies and a vibrant research program are all part of the same goal,” Lalande adds, “which is to make our excellent medical school even better than it is. Good researchers often make outstanding teachers and help support the best medical school programs. We need to innovate in order to keep attracting high profile faculty members interested in all aspects of academic life. That’s the goal of this plan.”