More federal grant money helped boost the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences upward by four spots in a national ranking of research expenditures, while the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville slid down one place.
Increasing federal research activity at UAMS will be needed to achieve a National Cancer Institute designation for its Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, officials have said. No facility in Arkansas has such a designation, and these sites often are home to clinical trials that enroll patients in addition to serving as research hubs.
At UA, an initiative that includes a new campus research facility is being funded with help from a $194.7 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.
The latest data from the National Science Foundation shows UA’s research expenditures ranking dropped to 127th nationally from 126th the previous year.
Spending increased overall, rising to $180.2 million at UA in fiscal 2019, up about 3% from the $175.5 million in fiscal 2018. But federally funded research expenditures at UA dipped to $50.9 million, down from about $53 million in fiscal year 2018.
“This isn’t concerning — expenditures can go up and down year to year, and they are trending up over the years,” John English, UA’s top research official, said in an email. The dip in rankings comes after four consecutive years in which UA saw its ranking increase compared to other research institutions. From fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2018, UA saw its ranking rise 10 slots.
UAMS spent $153.1 million in fiscal 2019, an increase of about 10% from the previous year’s $139.2 million in research spending.
The extra spending boosted UAMS to a rank of 137th nationally, up from 141st in the previous year’s survey.
The push upward occurred in a year in which both federal and institutional funding for UAMS research increased.
Federally funded research spending at UAMS increased to $63.5 million, up from $57.5 million in fiscal 2018. UAMS also spent more as an institution on research, with the total such spending rising to $62.5 million from about $53 million in fiscal 2018.
A state law passed in 2019, Act 580, set aside revenue from increased taxes on cigarette paper and certain medical-marijuana taxes to go in a UAMS’ trust fund for support of efforts to gain a National Cancer Institute designation.
Leslie Taylor, a UAMS spokeswoman, did not respond to a question Monday from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the amount of money set aside because of this state law that has gone to UAMS.
In 2019, Taylor said the “hope” was that at least $10 million annually from the state would go to support the cancer institute designation, and the state released $10 million in “rainy day” funds to jump-start the support.
UAMS has described the selection process to become a designated cancer center as highly competitive, but holds benefits for patients.
“With NCI Designation comes access to the latest in clinical trials and therapies for our patients,” Michael Birrer, director of the UAMS cancer institute, said in a statement this month after UAMS received a $1 million pledge supporting the center from Larry Crain Sr., who is president of a company with holdings that include ownership stakes in automobile dealerships.
In 2019, Shuk-Mei Ho joined UAMS as its vice chancellor for research, arriving from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Ho said in 2019 that for UAMS, “we need another $15 [million]-to-$20 million of federal money” when it comes to federal research funding, describing the figure as a rough estimate of what’s needed.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated center. By comparison, the Nebraska institution spent about $194.5 million on research in fiscal 2019, including about $102 million from the federal government, according to the most recent National Science Foundation survey.
English, who served as UA’s dean of engineering from 2013-20, on Nov. 1 began a 12-month term as UA’s vice chancellor for research and innovation. He took over from Daniel Sui, who left to take on a similar role at Virginia Tech University.
“Federal research funding helps us grow and fulfill our research and outreach missions to the state and beyond – it helps us solve problems, make discoveries and make life better for people,” English said in an email.
About the dip in federally funded research spending at UA, English said the university takes “the long-range view.” He referred to current efforts.
“We are having a great year in [grant] submissions. Research is a long-range endeavor,” English said. The university has a group known as its research council, which consists mostly of faculty members. English said he’s asked the group “to frame a strategic plan.”
The university is also taking a “deep dive” approach to an analysis of its Office of Sponsored Programs, which helps researchers find and apply for grant opportunities, English said. A goal is to “ensure we are operating with efficiency and efficacy,” English said. “We anticipate expanding this office to ensure a future that provides even better and broader service to campus,” he added.
Some plans were announced last year when UA officials described the $194.7 million Walton grant as establishing the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, or I3R.
Money from the grant is going toward the construction of a facility and hiring 20 faculty members, the university announced in July. The new institute aims to focus on collaboration while supporting efforts to take research to market and entrepreneurship education.
The institute will have five focus areas: data science, food systems, materials science, metabolic disease and integrative neuroscience.
“I can’t predict the rankings, but as we grow our research mission and expand collaborative and multidisciplinary opportunities, research funding and expenditures will both increase,” English said.
The annual survey report lists UA as having about $53.6 million in research expenditures coming from state and local government sources. English said that this amount includes about $38.1 million in state support for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm for the University of Arkansas System’s Agriculture Division.