Trustees Discuss Focused Research Agenda to Address State's Problems, Challenges

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 24, 2014) — The University of Kentucky is “uniquely positioned to help answer” the most fundamental challenges confronting the Commonwealth, UK President Eli Capilouto told trustees during a retreat Friday, Oct. 17.

But maximizing UK’s potential to tackle Kentucky problems will require greater investment in people and facilities that bring together researchers across a range of disciplines.

That idea — a strategic approach across the campus to specifically tackling Kentucky’s problems — was a recurring theme for trustees during the first day of a two-day strategic planning retreat.

“The problems are too great … but our potential to attack those problems is even greater,” Capilouto told trustees. “But we must focus. We must establish priorities. We have an opportunity to build a model system of health that will take a number of micro interventions to produce a macro effect.”

“As a board, there is a strong consensus that we must marshal our resources and our people in a focused and strategic way to attack Kentucky’s most significant challenges,” said UK Trustee Chairman Keith Gannon. “That’s what Kentucky needs from us. And it’s our mission as Kentucky’s flagship, land-grant institution of higher learning."

UK is uniquely positioned, Capilouto said, because of a number of factors:

—An extension network and clinical programs that reach all of the state’s 120 counties

—170 clinical outreach practices

—17 colleges and professional schools supported by a campus-wide research library system

—The fact that UK is one of only eight universities in the country with the full range of health, professional and undergraduate programs on one contiguous campus

—UK is one of only 22 institutions in the country with a trifecta of federal designations of excellence in three key areas of health — cancer, aging and translational science, the idea that discoveries can be taken from the laboratory into communities where they have an impact.

The problems and the challenges — along with the opportunities — are significant, Capilouto said, and they require a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary response.

Citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Capilouto said Kentucky is well above the national averages in the five leading preventable causes of death in the country — heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and unintentional injuries. Kentucky also has high utilization rates for health care, which leads to higher costs for access to quality care. Many of these issues — high incidences of disease and access to affordable care — are particularly acute in Appalachia and the 5th Congressional District.

“I’ve been impressed by our commitment to this people-centered place,” Capilouto said, referring to the university and the Commonwealth. “We are a people-centered place. It is what we do to, for and with each other. We are the university for Kentucky."

Capilouto and others said attacking Kentucky’s systemic challenges will require close collaboration among many academic and research disciplines. Many of the maladies that affect Kentucky communities are manifest in issues not directly tied to health — poverty, education, socio economic mobility — and the University’s breadth and depth of intellectual expertise can help address these challenges, holistically. To underscore that point, Capilouto cited work being done by a number of faculty in the arts, poetry, business, humanities, medicine, engineering, energy and other sciences.

Nancy Schoenberg, a behavioral scientist and professor in the College of Medicine who works in Eastern Kentucky alongside churches and faith communities on health interventions, said she came to UK “because of the promise of collaboration” and “to address particular Kentucky problems.”

“I would like lots more people … who do work similar to what I do."

In addition, Lisa Cassis, UK’s interim vice president for research, said one of UK’s critical needs is to create more space where professors and researchers can talk with — and work with — each other across disciplines. “What we vitally need is a way to bring us all together … in building a center,” Cassis said. “Everybody is in close proximity and there’s a healthy research environment.”

That research can be tied to creating a more coherent and efficient health care system in the state, said Mike Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs at UK. “We are trying to create a system that rationalizes health care but does not ration health care. It will take cooperation between providers” along with analytic systems to understand data and refine and create best practices that improve care.

UK is trying to focus these efforts on Kentucky problems in an era in which federal funding — the most significant source of research funding — “is still not recovering,” said Rodney Andrews, director of the Center for Applied Energy Research. “The prospects for funding going into the future are flat. What we are doing is competing more aggressively for the same amount of money.”

Other state universities, he said, are making leaps even in this constrained funding environment, he said, citing universities such as the University of Florida, the University of Southern California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

North Carolina, for example, benefited by a more than $1 billion bond issue by the state of North Carolina several years ago that was targeted toward university buildings and infrastructure. At the same time, the state returned more money to the university that had previously been captured from research grants. That allowed UNC-Chapel Hill to invest hundreds of millions in faculty retention and recruitment packages while also investing at the same time in research facilities, Andrews said.

UK can make a similar leap by making smart, strategic decisions, Andrews said. The university, he said, must:

—Make strategic decisions and investments

—Focus specifically on Kentucky’s problems

—Invest in areas of strength that support the university’s mission

—Develop and enable multidisciplinary teams to tackle these issues

An important by-product of investment in research is its economic impact, said Eric N. Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration.

For example, according to a recent study of Fiscal Year 2013, the annual economic impact of UK’s sponsored research was:

—$581 million in annual direct and indirect economic impact

—8,114 jobs created and support

—$21.3 million generated annually in local and state taxes

“What could that number be,” Monday said. “What will it be as UK grows that research enterprise?”

“That’s not why we do what we do,” Capilouto told trustees. “But it’s an incredible by-product."