UMB joins Hopkins in the big leagues

Figures show gap closing in funding schools receive for medical research

August 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For years, medical research in Baltimore was synonymous with the Johns Hopkins University.

However, as new figures released by the University of Maryland, Baltimore show, Baltimore is fast becoming a two-team town in the big leagues of medical research.

Last fiscal year, the professional schools of UMB, led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, brought in about $305 million in research funding - about 20 percent more than UMB received the year before, and nearly triple the $103 million it attracted eight years ago.

The increase means that UMB is rapidly closing the gap with Hopkins, which received $368 million in federal and private research funding for its medical school, and an additional $180 million for its public health school, in the 2001 fiscal year, the last period for which Hopkins has totals. Of the $305 million UMB received in the fiscal year that ended in June, $257 million went to its medical school.

"This is a big jump for us," said James L. Hughes, UMB's vice president for research and development. "We expected this would be a big year, but things are really on a roll."

Officials attribute the increase partly to the recent doubling of the National Institutes of Health's research budget; half of UMB's funding comes from the federal government.

But the university's largest increases over last year came in state, corporate and foundation support. The university received $20 million from the Gates Foundation for its new vaccine development center; entered into a six-year, $24 million contract with Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceuticals company, for its psychiatric research center; and received $7 million in state tobacco settlement funds for the school's cancer center.

Benefits from pursuits

In pursuing these grants and contracts, the university has benefited greatly from recent facility improvements, said Howard B. Dickler, the medical school's associate dean for research and graduate studies. Young researchers who were brought in a few years ago when the university's first health sciences building opened are "hitting their stride," he said.

And in the spring, a second health sciences building will open at the corner of Lombard and Penn streets, doubling the available laboratory space.

"[The expansion] gives all your grant applications more credibility, and increases your ability to be competitive," said Dickler.

The university also saw double-digit percentage increases in funding for its other professional schools, which make up the remaining $50 million in funding - pharmacy, social work, nursing, dentistry and law.

UMB's success in winning research dollars has not necessarily resulted, as one might expect, in its butting heads with Hopkins, officials said. For the most part, the institutions' strengths do not overlap, so that they rarely seek funding for similar projects.

For instance, when the Gates Foundation gave UMB $20 million for its vaccine center, it also gave Hopkins $20 million for its public health school.

"If anything, one of our great strengths is our nearness to Hopkins," said Hughes. "We subcontract some of our grants to them, and they subcontract to us. Having two major players so close strengthens both of us."

Hopkins officials agreed. "There's more collaboration than competitiveness," said Hopkins medical school spokesman Gary Stephenson.

That is not to say that UMB officials don't take some satisfaction in seeing their funding totals creep closer to those of their crosstown rival, after years of being overshadowed by it.

`We'd be the big dog'

Dickler recalls seeing a Washington television news broadcast this year about the UMB medical school's operation on conjoined twins in which the school was referred to only as a "Baltimore hospital." He was sure that if the operation had been at Hopkins, the broadcaster would have said so.

"We think the world of Hopkins, and it's terrific for the city to have both institutions," he said. "But we are a pre-eminent institution, and in most cities we'd be the big dog in town."

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