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External research funding continues to surge

BY: DAVID SALISBURY

4/14/2006 - Last year, the amount of external funding that Vanderbilt researchers received from peer-reviewed contracts and grants increased by 15 percent to reach an all-time high of $444 million.

This continues a trend of double-digit annual growth in research and development funding that began in fiscal year 1999. During this period, Vanderbilt's expansion has substantially outstripped that of most other top research universities in the country. The net result has been to more than double the overall level of externally funded research taking place at the university in the last five years.

In fiscal year 2005 (July 2004 to June 2005) 75 percent of the total research funding — $323 million — was awarded to Medical Center researchers while $121 million went to researchers in University Central, the remainder of the campus.

“These very strong growth numbers, in the face of flattening federal research budgets and very difficult pay-lines, are a tribute to our highly innovative faculty and the extraordinary competitive strength of their proposals,” said Jeffrey R. Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Dennis Hall, associate provost for Research and Graduate Education, also applauds faculty members' efforts: “Our faculty deserve tremendous recognition for going the extra mile to win the resources they need to pursue the great ideas that are the foundations of their research. My hat is off to them, each and every one.”

External research funding at the Medical Center increased by 10.7 percent in FY2005, following three years of increases that ranged from 14 percent to 37 percent. This reflected a slowdown in growth of federal spending for biomedical research following several years of vigorous growth as the U.S. Congress doubled the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget.

In the last four years, growth rates at the Medical Center have been substantially higher than the growth in NIH funding, evidence that Vanderbilt medical researchers have been competing successfully for federal research dollars. As a consequence, the number of Medical Center departments in the top 10 in NIH funding in their field — generally considered a mark of highest research quality — increased from five to eight: In FY2004, Anesthesiology, Pediatrics and Radiology joined Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Medicine, Pharmacology and Physiology.

According to Melinda Cotten, director of the Office of Grants and Contracts Management at the Medical Center, growth in research funding is likely to slow in the immediate future: “Even though the NIH budget grew by only 2 percent last year, the Medical Center sustained a growth rate of more than 10 percent in NIH funding alone. But it will be difficult to maintain double-digit gains in research funding in the current year, given the reductions in overall NIH funding.” For example, NIH has already implemented a 2.4 percent across-the-board cut of its programs.

The overall tightening of the NIH budget, however, is being offset by a significant increase in the number of grant applications being submitted by Medical Center researchers. “Hopes are high that these efforts will come to fruition,” said Cotten. Another growing source of income for the Medical Center has been projects sponsored by the Department of Defense. In FY2005 defense funding jumped by 187 percent to $4.23 million from $1.47 million in the previous year.

While the increase in the Medical Center funding levels softened, those in the rest of the University shot up by 30 percent. That compares to annual increases ranging from 11 percent to 21 percent in previous years.

John Childress, director of the sponsored research division, cautions that much of this jump was fueled by several large, multi-year research projects that received their entire funding in the last year. “According to our practice, we account for these projects in the year that the money is received, not when it is spent,” Childress said. “When you 'back out' these front-loaded projects, our annual increase is closer to a healthy 11 to 12 percent.”

Contributing to the University Central funding increase was not only continuing growth in the total number of successful research awards that Vanderbilt faculty members received, but also a substantial increase in the size of individual awards. The total number of successful awards increased a total of 5.5 percent while the largest awards (those greater than $500,000) rose by 21 percent. “This reflects the growing complexity of projects that our researchers are undertaking,” Childress said.

In University Central, the “poster child” for research funding last year was Peabody College: Its researchers pulled in $41.7 million, including several large projects in Peabody's departments of Special Education and Teaching & Learning. Another high point was the Divinity School, which received a $10 million, 15-year grant to create a program for producing more and better teachers for theological schools.

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