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Q&A: Institutional Pandemic Funding Catalyzes Research Collaboration

University research administration responded quickly to the funding needs of the pandemic, instituting the JHU COVID-19 Research Support Program in March 2020. The interdisciplinary program has provided major lessons in data transparency and collaboration that could redefine the structure of institutional research after the pandemic.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD
January 12, 2022

Academic research has been one of the most powerful forces to combat COVID-19. In late March 2020, the Johns Hopkins University Provost’s Office announced emergency funding for new interdisciplinary research efforts into the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic through the JHU COVID-19 Research Response Program. This initiative, spearheaded by Vice Provost for Research, Dr. Denis Wirtz (DW), and Executive Director for Research, Julie Messersmith (JM), has awarded over $6 million to 29 teams consisting of approximately 260 JHU faculty, clinicians, research staff, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

These project leaders represent 27 departments across six schools and the Applied Physics Laboratory. The grants yielded several notable scientific results and also led to a nearly 10-fold financial return on investment in less than one year. Wirtz and Messersmith believe the results provide a new roadmap for how institutionally-driven research can accelerate results.

Has pandemic-related research improved data transparency?

DW: The most important contribution to science in this pandemic, besides the vaccines, has been the dashboard within the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Before Dr. Lauren Gardner went public with the dashboard, she decided to disclose its sources of information, post all the data on GitHub, and share the code for plotting these data. She committed to not monetizing the research and being completely transparent. This was visionary and set a standard the entire scientific community had to meet. If people didn’t want to share data, they had to say so in light of the Hopkins dashboard.

“All incentives were lined up for people to be completely pushed to work together and disclose data.”

JM: Sequencing is probably another great example of this because the culture of that field is already one of data sharing. From the very beginning of the pandemic, our team at Hopkins was sequencing some of the very first strains in the Maryland/DC area from Hopkins health system hospitals. All of that research was going online as quickly as possible, so that the public could start seeing where these variants were breaking off.

DW: Visibility came from posting those sequences, not sitting on them. By the time you could publish in a few months, your findings could be obsolete. A lot of people that dedicated some of their lab work to the COVID-19 effort early on were already big proponents of data transparency. It's no accident that those who were able to switch and pivot to COVID-19 research were those who already wanted to be collaborative and transparent.

What is the role of internal and external funding in supporting collaboration?

DW: Researchers need initial funding to get data to move to bigger awards from private foundations or federal agencies. High-quality data is a way to show you can work together effectively and your hypothesis is supported. That has to start internally. Institutions like Johns Hopkins have to make internal investments in order to position our faculty to be competitive for these grants. It's not enough to say that as a computer scientist you can work with an infectious disease specialist. You need proof that you can actually collaborate and produce impactful data.

“People with different expertise working together produce more impactful work.”

JM: If you're going to push for open data and increased collaboration, the expectations of funders can come into play. When the JHU COVID-19 Research Response Program was first being established, Antony Rosen, the Vice Dean for Research at the School of Medicine, wanted to ensure that all samples collected by the funded teams were entered into a biorepository to be accessible to other researchers. Assays and reagents were also shared among the Hopkins community. This program was collaborative outside of direct funding, attempting to lift all boats for faculty pivoting to COVID-19 research. The samples in the biorepository were able to be reused in other avenues of research as well. These types of directives can be shared by funders. Then, back in academia, we need to think about how we prioritize collaboration. It's easier for senior faculty, but for junior faculty it's very difficult to prioritize collaboration at the same time that you're trying to distinguish yourself as an individual investigator and make tenure. Academia as a whole is still trying to figure out that balance.

Can Johns Hopkins support and enforce collaboration even at the junior faculty level?

DW: I'm starting personally to do it one person at a time, while thinking about how to scale it up. I'm engaging with junior faculty going after project grants and center grants, which tend to be $5 to $10 million in funding. The narrative has always been that only a very senior person should lead these projects. I never follow that advice. I’m leading a U54 center grant now where three or four of the main contributors are junior faculty. The typical advice would be to not do this.

“Awards like the Nobel Prize completely reinforce the false narrative that scientists work alone, toiling away at a bench in the darkness of night. All impactful projects involve teams.”

With Julie Messersmith and the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Research, Sue Porterfield, I have started discussing how to scale this up. We want departmental and school leadership to provide monetary support for their faculty to go after bigger grants and involve junior faculty to create that next generation of scholars who will find large, collaborative efforts to be second nature. Then, they themselves will become PIs and reach out to junior faculty because that's how they experienced it at Hopkins.

We don’t want to reach out to every chair and dean individually for every grant submission to make the pitch, so we are working on a way to codify this financial support for collaboration at Johns Hopkins. This is where the NIH and NSF want us to be anyway. It's an ever-shrinking pool of money going to singular efforts, while the pool of money going to collaborative efforts keeps expanding. As has been shown with COVID-19, real advances in medicine, public health, and engineering will happen at the interface of disciplines. We have to line up incentives to drive that transition.

What experiences with the COVID-19 Research Response Program can help define the institution’s research priorities after the pandemic?

DW: The ability to, in a matter of weeks, set up a fund for short-term, impactful results is something we could replicate in the future. Our office had done this at a slightly slower pace previously through the Discovery Award system, where we bring people with different expertise together for exploratory projects, but the pandemic effort was unprecedented. On a rolling basis, we were receiving proposals and awarding funds. At the beginning, Julie convened daily meetings to make decisions and keep the research process rolling. It was extraordinary and should be emulated in the future, where it could be a model to focus research and funding on a specific, impactful topic.

“The pool of money going to collaborative efforts keeps expanding.”

How can Johns Hopkins capitalize on its new position as a trusted source of public data?

JM: One of the best ways that we're going to be able to capitalize on this is through the new Bloomberg Distinguished Professors clusters program. The Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships (BDP) Program was founded by Michael Bloomberg back in 2013. We have hired the first 50 BDPs, and we recently announced that we will be hiring another 50 BDPs, which is a massive investment. These new BDPs, along with paired junior faculty, will go into several clusters. One of those nine clusters is a pandemic response and emergency preparedness (PREP) cluster, focusing on the areas of expertise that we saw were missing during our pandemic response and the areas that will continue to solidify us as the world's leader in pandemic response. It's a very broad and ambitious vision that they're creating. I hope it will grow into a bigger pandemic institute. This is a way that we can really ensure that the investments we've put in these last two years turn into something that's lasting and momentous.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD

Dr. Joshua E. Porterfield, Pandemic Data Initiative content lead, is a writer with the Centers for Civic Impact. He is using his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to give an informed perspective on public health data issues.