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Doing More with Less

Tight funding for biomedical research requires creative planning for tomorrow.

dollar sign illustration

Dean Rothman

Last fall, NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a series looking at the financing of biomedical research in the United States in light of the declining National Institutes of Health budget. In one interview, Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, offered a sound piece of advice for the research establishment: Instead of simply riding out the funding downturn, be proactive.

That is exactly what we are doing at Johns Hopkins Medicine. We certainly will continue to press lawmakers to restore the devastating funding cuts of the past decade, but in the meantime, we are looking for ways to do more with less.

To make the most of the tens of billions of dollars doled out by federal agencies each year, we are working to modernize our research ecosystem and find more efficient, sustainable ways of conducting and supporting research. Our Strategic Plan outlines several strategies for steering our biomedical research infrastructure into the future, and this is a conversation that needs to continue as a very high priority.

That is why we scheduled an off-site research retreat last November—to bring together thought leaders from across the institution and give them the opportunity to pause and carefully consider how to optimize research and training in a highly competitive funding climate. Nearly 80 faculty and staff members gathered in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a weekend of lively, productive discussion.

Our keynote speaker was Roy Vagelos, former Merck CEO and chairman of the board of biotech company Regeneron, who talked about the current era in science, and how it presents both challenges and opportunities to make important discoveries in human health.

We had a provocative debate about the future makeup of the biomedical workforce and how to reshape our training programs to be more in line with tomorrow’s career opportunities. We also brainstormed about new administrative structures to maximize success in grant funding — venues for people with different expertise to write proposals together and learn from each other.

Finally, we had sessions about jumpstarting more entrepreneurial momentum at Johns Hopkins by boosting institutional support for commercialization efforts. One way we intend to do this is through our new innovation hub. FastForward, the program designed to move academic research into the commercial marketplace, is expanding to East Baltimore in early 2015 to provide lab and office space for startups. FastForward East, as the second incubator will be known, will be closely tied to the Johns Hopkins University schools of medicine, public health and nursing.

People left the research retreat feeling inspired and hopeful — adjectives not always used these days in connection with academic research professions. We will continue to pursue treatments and chase new knowledge, even when practical applications are not immediately clear, because this work is indispensable. One need look no further than the recent Ebola virus disease outbreak to understand the critical importance of supporting biomedical research. A thriving scientific community is synonymous with progress. It defines Johns Hopkins, at present and up ahead. 

“We are working to modernize our research ecosystem and find more efficient, sustainable ways of conducting and supporting research.”