From the Dean: Growing our research enterprise
Most institutions of higher learning share three core values in their missions – education, discovery (that is, research, scholarship, and creative activities), and service to the community. As I’ve indicated previously, what is somewhat unique about the UND SMHS is that our purpose as a school is defined in North Dakota Century Code, the codified laws of the state. We are the only institution of higher learning in the state that has that distinction. Our missions of education, discovery, and service to the people of the state are clearly defined in that purpose statement.
Over the past decade, we’ve made a major effort to expand our research portfolio, because a key to improving the health of North Dakotans is by better understanding the diseases that can impact them. The current pandemic certainly is a reminder of the impact that disease can have on us! The faculty, staff, and students at the School have responded in an exemplary manner, and the School has substantially increased its research and related activities. One measure of the scope of research activities is the amount of funding that the School’s investigators have garnered from external agencies, typically federal, like the National Institutes of Health. The amount of external funding (including service contracts) that investigators at the School have received has doubled over the past decade! That’s quite an impressive degree of growth.
One of the administrative moves we made a number of years ago was to consolidate our then-four basic sciences departs into one department (the Department of Biomedical Sciences, led by Chair Colin Combs). We made this change for two main reasons: to reduce the overhead costs associated with administering four relatively small departments, and, more importantly, to maximize the cohesiveness and interaction of the various faculty, staff, and students associated with the four departments. Such interactions tend to maximize discovery – science is, after all, a team sport!
And the move worked! A recent analysis of grant funding awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to schools with biomedical sciences departments found that our department ranks second in the country, a move up from our ranking in third place in 2019-2020! The analysis was performed by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research. This is the third year in a row that the department has been listed in the top three recipients of NIH grant dollars among comparable biomedical sciences departments nationwide, of which there are about thirty. (Note that because other institutions categorize their programs differently, they may have any number of separate basic sciences departments – not consolidated into one like ours – and thus are not on the Blue Ridge Institute ranking list as a “biomedical sciences” program).
This is amazing growth in our research scope and impact, and congratulations to all involved!
On a related note, much of that NIH funding our biomedical sciences team has taken in over the past several years is dedicated to exploring the pathology, prevention, and possible treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that hits the Dakotas especially hard, relative to other states. This fact is part of what prompted a visit to our School today from North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer. Sen. Cramer will be on-site to talk Alzheimer’s research with our faculty and see their research facilities. Thanks to the Senator for his time and interest as we hope to do even more in 2022 and beyond to help combat Alzheimer’s and the other neurodegenerative diseases that are so devastating to our communities.
Finally, as you may be aware, UND President Armacost just announced a relaxation of the University’s mask policy for various areas on campus. However, he indicated that certain units with clinical operations, such as ours, may require more stringent requirements. Accordingly, the UND SMHS will maintain its current policy for the present while we solicit input from our SMHS family and consider the issue further before making any policy changes. We plan to announce any potential changes in SMHS policy next week, but, again, for now, the SMHS policy regarding masks is unchanged.
Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences