Feinberg research growing from injections of federal dollars, private gifts


Source: University Relations

A rendering of the Feinberg School of Medicine’s incoming biomedical research center on the Chicago Campus. The Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center broke ground in May after a $92 million donation from the couple to the We Will campaign.

Julia Jacobs, Summer Editor

Although the national government’s biomedical research funding has been stagnant for the past dozen years, funding for Northwestern’s medical school research has been steadily growing — a counterintuitive trend administrators say they hope will continue.

The Feinberg School of Medicine’s research funding grew about 12 percent last year and more than 10 percent in 2013 — which Jay Walsh, the vice president for research at NU, said is a rarity among other research universities in the current financial climate.

“This is in drastic contradiction to what you would see at many of our peer institutions,” Walsh said. “Institutions nationwide are under pressure. They’re under financial pressure if they get a substantial amount of their funding from the state, and they’re under financial pressure because it’s difficult to get federal funding.”

But Feinberg has neither federal nor state funding troubles to worry about, Walsh said. Since 2003, National Institutes of Health funding for Feinberg research has grown despite funding for the institutes themselves remaining flat: Feinberg’s ranking among NIH-funded institutions has improved from 38th in 2003 to 21st in 2014. And as a private university, NU remains untouched by state budget cuts to Illinois institutions in recent years.

Bob McQuinn, the vice president of alumni relations and development at NU, told The Daily in an email that most of the increase in Feinberg’s funding over the past couple of years comes from federal grants. However, the University’s “We Will” campaign also plays a role.  McQuinn said that 40 percent of the total campaign goal — $1.5 billion — is allocated to Feinberg, a percentage that aligns with the proportion of the University’s budget that belongs to the medical school.

The effect of federal dollars and the private campaign on biomedical research funding is more complex that a simple summation, Walsh said. Money from private donors allows Feinberg to produce discoveries and inventions that researchers can present to the NIH when seeking more funding, he said. In a cyclical fashion, those federal dollars feed into the University’s strategic plan for future research, which attracts more private donors, he added.

“There is enormous potential in developing not only the centerpiece for high quality of life, but also these therapies can generate wealth because they open new business opportunities,” said Samuel Stupp, the director of the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine, endowed by an alumnus and his wife in 2014 at the outset of the “We Will” campaign.

Stupp said this money has allowed the institute to back particularly expensive research that aims to find ways to regenerate human tissue in order to address problems such as spinal cord injuries and joint degeneration.

This year, Simpson and Querrey contributed another $92 million, which is helping to fund the new 12-story Simpson and Querrey Biomedical Research Center in Chicago, a project that broke ground in May. The construction of the building is likely to cause an even larger increase in Feinberg research funding compared to last year’s growth, according to a campaign update in June from the administration.

Administrators intend for the research building to double what they call Feinberg’s “research enterprise,” which Dr. Alan Krensky, the vice dean for development and alumni relations at Feinberg, said refers broadly to the total amount of biomedical research occurring within the school. The building will also serve to centralize pediatric research in Chicago with the research center’s proximity to the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, which will allow scientists to interact more easily with the hospital’s pediatricians, Krensky said.

“This is the future of academic medicine at Northwestern,” he said. “And (the campaign) is what has made everything possible.”

Krensky said campaign dollars have gone not only towards constructing new buildings but renovating spaces, supporting fellows and students and recruiting and retaining faculty.

These new hires include Ali Shilatifard, the chair of the department of biochemistry and molecular genetics, who has discovered potential druggable targets for cancer, Krensky said. Another investment of the campaign money was in Dr. Alfred George, the chair of the department of pharmacology, who is researching intracellular channels to find potential drugs to treat heart disease and brain disorders such as epilepsy, he said.

Although Walsh said it is difficult to tell whether the University’s reputation among research institutions is mirroring the growth of its funding, NU’s increasingly more competitive position in vying for faculty across the country suggests it is also growing.

“I’m seeing a change — in nearly the three decades that I’ve been here — in the intensity of the the scholarly activity that is happening across the university,” Walsh said. “We now regularly compete for faculty with all of the peers that you might consider our peers on both coasts.”

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