Alternative fuels

Federal funds allocated for biomedical research when adjusted for inflation have not significantly increased over the last 10 years. Nonetheless, the NIH has increased the number of research project grant awards in recent years, despite increases in nominal costs. Moreover, the distribution of research project grant costs is shifting toward both the high and low ends—NIH is funding a larger proportion of relatively expensive and relatively inexpensive awards. This is no news to any researcher, whether you have been submitting grant applications for three years or thirty years. How to tap into these large and “expensive” funding opportunities has been a topic for discussion for a while.

No doubt, the Carver College of Medicine is a world-class academic medical center and research institution with top talent and unique strengths. Building the framework for large grant applications takes time and funds and there should be no barriers from leadership, now or in the future, to forming the kinds of large networks needed for success. In fact, one of the dean candidates talked about his past Iowa experience with a large research group that assembled around a common interest and provided the starting block for several remarkable careers. It would be difficult to believe any dean would do anything but clear roadblocks to pursuing a program project grant. The University of Iowa as a whole has already demonstrated its commitment to creative and progressive research. Consider the UI Strategic Investment Fund (UISIF), which is fueled by the utility public-private partnership (P3) begun a few years ago. Those P3 dollars are already flowing to researchers across the institution, including into our own. Whether we are building stronger bridges with our Hawkeye colleagues in other departments and colleges, or we must look beyond the university for new and like-minded collaborators, I believe that our department can continue to lead as we all navigate this challenging environment.

In my last post, I highlighted the new research program being co-led by Dr. Frank Faraci, and indeed many researchers in our department have made significant advancements working with organizations like the Leducq Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, or the American Heart Association. But an underexplored source of fuel for our research engine is perhaps even closer to home, our patients themselves. More than $11M in philanthropy came to the Department of Internal Medicine in 2021, steered largely by our partners in the University of Iowa Center for Advancement. If you have not met Bob King yet, I would encourage you to reach out to introduce yourself. He is dedicated to telling stories to potential donors about our hard work. He regularly meets with people who share the same curiosity and hope that drives our efforts and who want to be a part of that work, to contribute to it however they can. Learning how to identify and have these conversations with patients who are grateful and would love to help is a skill like any other in patient communication. The idea makes many feel uncomfortable, but having these conversations is not the equivalent of door-to-door sales or making cold calls. It is understanding that opening the door to generosity, connecting patients and their families with opportunities, can be just as much a part of a healing process for them. The goal is to add a new dimension to what we can offer our patients, a chance for them to participate in transformative work they have witnessed and appreciated. Academic philanthropy can take either of these faces.

Top: Drs. Stoltz, Zabner; Middle: Dr. Comellas; Bottom: Drs. Song, Abboud

What can those interactions become? Benefactors may give to a hospital to recognize a particular service or to enable the purchase of the newest piece of medical equipment or to support a particular researcher or research program. Depending on the size of the gift, that impact could extend for generations. Just last month I received word that a round of nominations for professorships were approved. Dr. David Stoltz has become the Sterba Professor, a position that was formerly held by his predecessor, the Director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine, Dr. Joseph Zabner. In that same division, Dr. Alejandro Comellas was named to a more recently endowed position, the Pulmonary Research Professorship, in recognition of his many achievements in research and for his leadership, both within the Post-COVID Clinic and in the Clinical Research Unit of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. The third approval was for the Edith King Pearson Chair of Cardiovascular Research, which was held for many, many years by Dr. Frank Abboud, and will now be held by Dr. Long-Sheng Song. Congratulations to each of these researchers, who will put these funds and positions to great use, in a variety of activities.

I am reminded of something that Executive Dean Dr. Pat Winokur said at the investiture of Drs. Ayotunde Dokun, Sue Bodine, and Kamal Rahmouni into three new professorships within the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center earlier this year. The importance of philanthropy, she said, particularly when it produces endowed chairs and professorships, can be seen in the speed and freedom they grant to the recipient. NIH grants may be more limited in time and scope, and they focus on the questions that were proposed years earlier. But with endowed professorships or chairs—the result of identified generosity—a researcher can engage in any number of activities, depending on the structure of the gift, including training and support for other researchers. These are truly special gifts and we should work to develop as many of them as we can for our department and its future.

About Isabella Grumbach, MD, PhD

Isabella Grumbach, MD, PhD; Interim Chair and DEO, Department of Internal Medicine; Kate Daum Endowed Professor; Professor of Medicine – Cardiovascular Medicine; Professor of Radiation Oncology

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