The Department of Pediatrics has an excellent history of pediatric research on which to build a national presence, however in recent years the department has seen decreases in extramural funding, including from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Interviews suggested a number of causes. The department is currently below a critical mass for research faculty, with funding concentrating among a relatively limited number of faculty members.
Pediatrics faculty members report slightly greater dissatisfaction with the research resources and infrastructure provided to them than do faculty in other School of Medicine clinical departments.
As with most academic medical departments, it is difficult for physician-scientists to focus on research given limited administrative support and lack of fellows and Advanced Practice Providers to offset some of the clinical load. The relative lack of departmental research mentors and limited resources and protected time for research makes it difficult to obtain new training or research grants, limiting the amount of new research funding as well as the overhead necessary to re-invest in the research enterprise.
Advancing the research mission will require an explicit rededication to research in the department from departmental leaders and the rest of the faculty. It will require identifying key areas for research growth, and then leveraging existing strengths, both within the Department of Pediatrics and within the School of Medicine and UNC campus. It will also require strategic investments, for instance, in the recruitment of successful faculty, to build critical mass in these areas while also creating a culture of research that operates in parallel with the clinical mission.
Priorities and Initiatives
Strategic Priority 1: Establish the right conditions for research success within the Department of Pediatrics
The Steering Committee recommended several steps to bolster the research environment in the Department of Pediatrics, with a focus on patient-oriented, multidisciplinary research. Most importantly, the Department of Pediatrics must enhance the research leadership, infrastructure and culture within the Department of Pediatrics in order to foster and value research.
- Establish research leadership in the Department of Pediatrics by identifying a Vice Chair for Research to provide mentoring and evaluation for researchers in divisions where the appropriate expertise is absent, represent the Department of Pediatrics at UNC Center Directors meetings, advocate for research in the Department of Pediatrics and UNC, and other like duties.
- Develop an Office of Pediatric Research to centralize support for research activity in the department. Functions of this office include:
- Interface with research enterprises across campus to identify common interests
- Actively seek areas for collaboration
- Serve as a resource for investigators regarding expertise and core services across campus
- Oversee mock grant reviews
- Assist as needed in fundraising activities geared toward the department research mission
- Create a North Carolina Children’s Hospital Research Institute, a hub for cutting-edge clinical research in collaboration with N.C. Children’s Hospital. The Institute will provide better coordinated research support as well as expanding and highlighting potential fund-raising opportunities.
- Hold an annual or bi-annual research retreat to foster interaction between faculty, raise the profile of research in the department, and serve as a forum for faculty and post docs to present their research.
- Set clear expectations for research faculty productivity, with concomitant rewards for research success.
- Develop a broader scope of departmental collaborations within UNC. Specifically, shared recruitments with other UNC departments and Centers and increased participation of PhD and MD/PhD graduate students in the Department of Pediatrics (includes the existing HHMI Med-into-Grad program).
- Seek mechanisms for enabling faculty research productivity, including greater administrative support, medical writing for grant submissions and manuscripts, and identifying dedicated support for biostatistics and bioinformatics through the CTSA and other UNC departments.
- Foster a clinical environment consistent with research-focused faculty by evaluating steps to better enable clinician-investigators’ research activities.
Strategic Priority 2: Identify and invest in target research focus areas, capitalizing on existing strengths
Organizations must be thoughtful and deliberate in prioritizing limited resources, lest decisions be made at the last minute and without proper planning. It is for this reason that the Committee recommends a series of steps needed to build critical mass necessary for nationally-leading programs. High priority should be placed on recruiting faculty with strong potential for collaboration and affiliation with other, established research enterprises on campus outside of the Department of Pediatrics.
- Convene a Research Advisory Board of internal and external research experts with a broad range of experience and backgrounds, to visit the Department of Pediatrics every two years. The Board members will bring varied perspectives based on their own institutions, creating a vibrant research climate in the department. Responsibilities of the Board will include:
- Ensure a broader research context is cultivated beyond the confines of UNC
- Provide an objective assessment of the existing research strengths within the department and within UNC for which there is no Department of Pediatrics representation but is a logical fit for pediatrics
- Guide department leadership in determining the highest priority opportunities for research in the Department of Pediatrics
- Recruit researchers on the basis of research theme or need with high potential for collaboration with others and strategically important expertise with clearly outlined expectations regarding career development and tenure opportunities; and where possible, strive for joint appointments with other UNC departments.
- Work with the Children’s Promise development group to seek philanthropic support for endowed chairs, thereby enabling recruitment of established faculty with successful research programs.
Strategic Priority 3: Improve institutional and national stature of investigators of the Department of Pediatrics
The stature of an academic department is crucial for attracting and retaining outstanding faculty who will generate extramural research funding and conduct successful research, thus further boosting the departmental reputation in a “virtuous cycle.”
- Increase the visibility of the department through collaboration with others at UNC, including formal joint appointments with basic science departments, the School of Public Health, Sheps Center, School of Pharmacy and others.
- Encourage and provide resources for department faculty participation in symposia and other events at the local, regional and national levels.
- Encourage senior faculty to nominate junior colleagues to serve in a variety of roles:
- NIH ad hoc grant reviewers, thereby expanding the pool of department faculty likely to be appointed to study sections
- Members of foundation scientific advisory committees
- Manuscript reviewers for journals
- Authors of text chapters and articles
- Content leaders to serve as consultants
- Ensure pediatric-focused faculty are considered during School of Medicine and University-wide recruiting efforts through increased participation and interactions with leadership.