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MED Grants Flourish Despite NIH Cuts

Monies and rankings continue to climb

Funding cuts earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have forced researchers across the country to tighten their budgets. But for BU’s School of Medicine — on the heels of higher rankings, increased admissions, building expansions, and the launch of two new majors — comes the news that faculty have continued to secure government grants for a broad spectrum of biomedical research, renewing existing grants and garnering new ones.

“In real dollars the NIH has actually not grown its funding this year, but we’re experiencing modest growth,” says Mark Klempner, a MED professor and Medical Campus associate provost for research.

In fiscal year 2005, MED was ranked 42nd in funding from NIH, with a grant total of $155 million. This year, the Office of Sponsored Programs shows the Medical Campus $181.3 million in awards. Of this, MED received $136.3 million, the School of Dental Medicine $12.6 million, and the School of Public Health $32.5 million. As of the last quarter, according to Klempner, research awards to Boston Medical Center (BMC), where many of the faculty’s research grants are awarded and administered, totaled $76.9 million.

Karen Antman, MED dean
and Medical Campus provost.

In 2006, the Medical Campus applied for over 1,000 NIH grants, up 10 percent from 2005. “We saw a small dip in applications granted at the end of 2005. But we’re back on the upslope because of this application rate rise,” Klempner says, “which tells me that people are pedaling faster and that multiresearcher, programmatic applications have risen higher than individual applications.”

MED also improved its ranking in the US News & World Report 2007 Best Graduate Schools, which placed the school28th, along with the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “We are ranked higher than we have been in the past,” says Karen Antman, MED dean and provost of the Medical Campus. “We used to be below Tufts and now we are ranked higher than Tufts, Brown, NYU, and Dartmouth.”

However, she points out, “if you look at grant funding per faculty member in US News & World Report, our faculty are doing better than Harvard,” which is ranked number one,  and is 28th in 2005 NIH funding. “It’s just that they have five times as many faculty; we have excellent faculty, just not as many.”

While these rankings are an important tool for recruitment and public perception, the numbers might actually be better than indicated.

“It’s a quirk of the system, the way the NIH tallies things,” says Klempner, who is also the director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories Institute. The NIH rankings count only grants to faculty that are awarded to MED, not the grants awarded to Boston Medical Center. “At the campus, you’d be blind to the difference between the School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center because they literally share many resources and facilities,” says Klempner. “NIH’s system greatly underestimates the breadth and depth of research at the Medical Campus.”

In the increasingly important areas of neuroscience and cardiovascular disease, researchers such as Joseph Vita, a MED professor and director of clinical research at the Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute, who is looking at the role of antioxidants in vascular disease, and Mark Moss, chair of the MED anatomy and neurobiology department, who studies Alzheimer’s disease, have received NIH funding.

Helen Tager-Flusberg, director of the Laboratory of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, is one MED professor with multiple NIH grants. An expert in developmental disorders like autism and Williams syndrome, she received funding this fall as principal investigator of a new research project on autism. “Typically symptoms appear at 12 to 18 months even if autism is not diagnosed until age two. We’re trying to catch these risk factors in infants,” says Tager-Flusberg, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at MED and of psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences.

Tager-Flusberg reviews grant applications for the NIH, so she knows firsthand that the grant process is increasingly competitive. “When I started at BU, they would fund the top 20 percent of eligible and good grants,” she says. “Now they’re down to not even 10 percent of the most well-reviewed grants being funded.”

Still, with a center grant, a program project grant, single research study grants, and several different training grants, her lab is “very well funded by NIH,” she says.

Klempner says that another gauge of MED’s success is the ability of a researcher with a single NIH grant to get a second or third grant. “About 45 to 55 percent of researchers with a first NIH grant are successful at competing for additional federal grants and some have up to eight additional grants,” he says, figures that compare favorably with the most research-intensive medical centers in the country.

Faculty size is growing too, enabling the school to launch two new master’s degrees, in forensics and medical imaging. “Imaging is a major new research area at the interface of biomedical engineering and medicine,” says Antman. “When I started in medicine, we had to do operations to determine how extensive the cancer was; now we just send them for an imaging study.” The forensics major was launched in collaboration with the FBI, the medical examiner, and state and local police, she says.

Recruiting new faculty is one of three ways to enlarge the research portfolio, according to Klempner. A school’s successful researchers must also increase their research efforts and must put together groups of already successful researchers. “We’ve been very successful in all three areas,” he says.

MED’s international presence continues to grow as well. “Many of our faculty and students do rotations in South America, Asia, India, and Africa and have expertise in these areas,” says Antman. 

BU is also part of a national trend toward interdisciplinary research. “The funding sources are really asking for multidisciplinary approaches to research; we began this at least five years ago,” says Klempner, who has encouraged alliances among MED, the College of Engineering, and the CAS departments of biology and chemistry. “My first activity when I started was to visit all the research faculty in life sciences at the Charles River Campus and focusing on collaborations. The collaborative spirit is stronger here than any other institution I’ve ever visited, and very promising.”

And word must be getting out. The medical school has seen a 6 percent increase in student applications, with higher average applicant GPAs, as well as a higher percentage of students who accepted a seat in the class of 2010.