In early 2013, the University of Florida made a pledge: to better itself. It had good reason — and good ability. UF will begin receiving $15 million per year for five years after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that designates UF as preeminent. The goal? To rocket the university up to top 10 status. With the newfound support from Florida’s lawmakers and approval from UF Trustees, the university launched UF Rising last year — its five-year initiative to support the preeminence plan and elevate UF among the nation’s top public research universities.
The initiative targets investments in both faculty and students by hiring faculty “all-stars” to help strengthen existing work in high-potential areas of science and scholarship. The UF Foundation is supporting the plan with an $800 million fundraising campaign to add more than 100 new endowed professorships, as well as upgrade and add facilities.
“Being a top 10 university isn’t about bragging rights; it’s about being an institution that is among the best at fulfilling its missions of research, education, service and economic development,” said UF President Bernie Machen. “We already have terrific people with the will and drive to push us to the top. With the right resources, there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll get there.”
Before the official campaign, the UF College of Medicine was already rising — paving its own path toward preeminence through exceptional progress in its clinical care and education enterprises, and most notably, through research funding. The momentum began four years ago in 2010 when the college garnered about $62 million in National Institutes of Health research grant funding. In 2011, that funding rose again, to $72 million, and shot up again, in 2012, to about $84 million.
Then the 2012 Budget Control Act — sequestration — happened. NIH had to slash its budget by $1.7 billion, or 5 percent. But even during that decline, the UF College of Medicine reversed expectations: Its 2013 NIH funding rose a little over 1 percent, to $85 million.
“The last four years, funding has increased more than the four years previous,” said Thomas A. Pearson, MD, MPH, PhD, executive vice president for research and education for UF Health. “It’s the highest year-over-year-percentage increase of any medical school
of any major research university.”
UF’s medical faculty weren’t waiting for an initiative to tell them to be great. They were already doing great things.
“It’s not the institution that gets the grants. It’s the faculty. The faculty are what drives these innovative ideas,” said Michael L. Good, MD, dean of the College of Medicine. “Our first priority is always to retain the outstanding faculty we already have.”
Stephen Sugrue, PhD, professor and senior associate dean for research affairs at the College of Medicine, and Good partnered about five years ago to analyze where the college’s funding was coming from. They also assessed what type of funding the school was receiving.
“Our basic research funding was comparable to our peer schools and some aspiring schools,” Sugrue said. “But where we lagged behind was in our clinical research funding. Clinical grants are bigger grants.”
By filling key leadership positions in clinical departments like pediatrics, medicine and neurology, and placing emphasis on clinical research awards, the college has improved its translational research programs at an extraordinary pace, Sugrue said. He pointed out that half the rise in funding dollars is equally attributed to established faculty and new faculty.
On the heels of the College of Medicine’s recent growth in collaborative research and NIH funding, UF’s preeminence plan aims to add a slew of new faculty — faculty whose research crosses departmental boundaries. And all the forward motion from UF and the medical school will make it that much easier to recruit them, Sugrue said.
“These kinds of data are incredibly impressive to our candidates coming in because they’re coming from schools that are throttling back,” he said. “They’re coming from schools where they can say the grass at UF is indeed greener. That’s why the timing of preeminence is perfect for us; we’re on the upswing.”
While the UF College of Medicine celebrates its rise to the upper third of medical schools with regard to NIH funding and its climb in the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research rankings from 62 in 2009 to 45 in 2013, the dean is not resting on the school’s laurels.
“Despite our success, we still have a long way to go,” Good said. “We celebrated getting to the top third. Now, we’d like to be in the top quartile.
“All of the preeminence initiatives build on our existing strengths. We are already very good, but we plan to, and will be, even better.”