By SHANNON O. WELLS
For Rob Rutenbar, Pitt surpassing a $1 billion landmark in research-based expenditures in fiscal year 2022 — placing it in the esteemed “top 21” company of institutions like Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Stanford universities — is certainly exciting and encouraging, but also the natural result of focused goals and priorities.
“The $1 billion mark was inevitable, given the scope of the enterprise and the rate of our growth. So this was always a ‘when,’ not an ‘if,’” said Rutenbar, the University’s senior vice chancellor for research, of the $1.07 billion in 2022 expenditures. “Secondly, it validates that we are a comprehensive research institution and have a national leadership role in the health sciences. Tenth in NIH funding in 2021 (among universities) really does put us in an elite group of American universities.”
The endeavors behind the $1 billion milestone in research funding are documented and celebrated in 2021-22 Pitt Research annual report.
In the past five years, Pitt has tracked a steady pace of growth in research volume, with a 7 percent average annual increase in research expenditures, Rutenbar noted. For the current fiscal year, expenditures were $111.3 million higher than the year before, marking an 11.7 percent increase.
“But funding is never the end goal,” he said. “It is one way of measuring the size of the resources we have to bring to the problems we are working to solve — in some cases, at a societal scale.”
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, Pitt saw:
8,930 proposals submitted
3,283 grants awarded
967 direct sponsors including federal, state and local government, foundations, nonprofits and for-profit industries
The funding was split among different fields
62.5 percent in medicine
15 percent in health sciences
9.3 percent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM)
6.8 percent in arts, humanities, social sciences and related fields
6.5 percent for the “other” category encompassing Pitt’s regional campuses and administrative offices such as chancellor and senior vice chancellor units, and student affairs.
In the area of medicine, Pitt researchers played a significant role in the efforts to address, treat and prevent consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The University was awarded $385 million to take on more than 180 research projects, including clinical and vaccine trials, with faculty serving as principal and co-principal investigators on hundreds of papers, the annual report said.
As part of the COVID-19 Prevention Network and Operation Warp Speed partnership with federal agencies, Pitt was one of the largest sites in the U.S. for vaccine trials and clinical treatments. Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) launched the COVID-19 Pilot Grant Program to help fund research, awarding $900,000 to 17 studies to address various aspects of the pandemic, the report noted.
Rutenbar cited instances of the University’s increasingly robust multidisciplinary research climate benefitting synergy among Pitt’s various schools and units.
“One great example that is hot right now is sustainability, and the notion that the current economic model, forming a straight line from resource to product to waste, is unsustainable,” he said.
Melissa Bilec, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, received a $98,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to convene experts — including chemistry, biology, engineering, business and behavioral science — to set the research agenda on “circular economy design,” with a focus of keeping “disposable” products from ending up in landfills.
Rutenbar’s office also supports the multidisciplinary research climate through the Pitt Momentum Funds program, he said. Bilec, as part of Swanson School of Engineering Professor Eric Beckman’s Scaling Award Team, led a set of NSF’s growing convergence research proposals that were awarded $1.7 million. Bilec’s $1.6 million award, “Convergence Around the Circular Economy,” is linked to one of NSF’s “10 Big Ideas,” Rutenbar noted.
Pitt’s collaborative approach also is making a difference for deaf and hard of hearing persons who Rutenbar said are highly underrepresented in the research community, comprising less than 1 percent of STEM doctorate recipients. To address the disparity, Richard Boyce, associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, partnered with colleagues at Gallaudet University to create the Accessible and Inclusive Biomedical Informatics and Data Science program.
The program, Rutenbar said, is unique in empowering deaf and hard of hearing persons students and those from other underrepresented groups in the sciences to lead biomedical-informatics and data-science research. It’s intended to increase inclusion and accessibility in this area “through authentic, accessible, and inclusive mentored research internships,” he said.
Pitt’s research-based programs, including outreach and volunteering, intersect with the Greater Pittsburgh community in a range of “health and wellness services, technology support, arts programs, business assistance and sustainability collaborations” throughout the area.
Some examples of this community synergy include:
The Black Women and Femmes Health Initiative, which is developing a Black Women's Health Agenda for Allegheny County to assess whether health and social systems address the health and well-being of Black women in the area. The team, led by Dara Mendez, associate professor of epidemiology in Pitt’s School of Public Health, with colleagues in schools of medicine and law, the Africana studies department and New Voices for Reproductive Justice, will develop a strategic plan tying together research, practice and policy across the county.
The Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education and Outreach, led by Emily Elliott, in geology and environmental science, helps universities, local governments, nonprofits and community groups across Western Pennsylvania find sustainable research-based solutions to the region’s serious water challenges, such as raw sewage overflows, aging infrastructure and industrial contamination. For their work with partners in the Greater Pittsburgh area, Rutenbar said the collaborative entity was recognized with the 2022 ARIS (Advancing Research Impact in Society) Impact Innovations Award.
The Office of Engagement & Community Affairs, which offers a range of resources “to assist researchers and our partners to pursue community engaged scholarship effectively,” he said. Click here to read more about the Community Engaged Scholarship Forum.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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