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Dome - Stoking the research engine

March 2011

Stoking the research engine

Date: March 4, 2011

Basic scientists get an update on new efforts to drive discovery.

Chi Dang says Hopkins scientists will need to collaborate on lab space as well as research projects to enhance intellectual capital.
Chi Dang says Hopkins scientists will need to collaborate on lab space as well as research projects to enhance intellectual capital.

When Chi Dang stood to talk about November’s basic science retreat, he quickly drilled down to two key topics that always get the attention of researchers—new obstacles for grants and new protocols for allocating space.

The occasion was an early February gathering with dozens of research leaders at the three-year-old John G. Rangos Sr. Building at the northern edge of campus. Dang, vice dean for research, had hailed the retreat as “one of the most rewarding” in the institution’s half dozen retreats, noting that it “reaffirmed the depth and breadth of research at our institution—from molecules to delivery of health care—and started a conversation about what needs to be done to best fuel the discovery engine.”

In his talk, Dang briefly touched on the retreat’s actual discussions, including how new ideas on brain injury now preoccupy three different departments; how to best optimize our intellectual capital; how to best harness the latest in genomics, informatics and emerging technologies; what to do about the obesity epidemic; and how to better query our extensive database of electronic medical records for definitive clinical outcomes.

“And after all the fun happened,” Dang smiled, “we actually had a nice reception.”

But Dang’s talk lingered on one of Hopkins’ eternal topics: How can we keep blazing new trails if researchers  can’t get adequate lab space?

Dang outlined an emerging program—borne of the retreat—in which department heads can pool their space resources into a single database and analyze it more globally. In the early going, he says, some “excess space” will likely be identified and “some internal shuffling could happen.”

One of the dividends, Dang says, could actually dovetail with new collaborations in which researchers pursuing the same questions from different disciplines could work more closely together. Dang believes the approach can also enhance Hopkins’ robust intellectual capital. He says key groups plan to reconvene in the near future to share recommendations.

Dang’s comment on collaboration prompted Dean/CEO Edward Miller to sound a new challenge in grant writing. Miller said new grants submitted to the NIH will now be subject to a steeper “two-and-out” rule, in which proposals on the same topic will only be considered twice before a research group’s idea is permanently denied funding prospects. Traditionally, the NIH would indulge a third shot.

“This is going to be a big deal,” Miller said, suggesting that scientists seeking grants might benefit from subjecting their proposals to deeper analytics and that new collaborations might give them an edge.

“This could be a big threat to us,” Dang added, describing how most faculty have themes to their research—meaning that an overarching question can spawn a series of related study questions—and that grant-seekers must be more careful to articulate distinctive questions to avoid any perception of seeking the same funding a third time. One of the reasons the new rules are a special threat to Hopkins, Dang explained, is that previous grant proposals often won funding on their third attempt.

—Ramsey Flynn