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Infectious disease under the microscope

January 8, 2001

Mary Ann Travis

Infectious-disease research is under the proverbial microscope. Targeted in the university's strategic plan as one of Tulane's five most promising and productive areas, infectious-disease research is undergoing intense scrutiny during a new phase of strategic planning--the assessment phase.

John Clements, chair and professor of microbiology and immunology, heads up the committee that is organizing and leading the process that will look thoroughly at the strengths, weaknesses and, most importantly, he says, "the opportunities for the university in the area of infectious-disease research."

Tied to the assessment process will be a presidential symposium at which one of three external scientist-evaluators will present a public talk about his or her own research in infectious disease. The assessment process began this fall as Clements and other members of the organizing committee put out the university-wide call for all faculty members and researchers involved in infectious-disease research to identify themselves.

"Those are the voices we need to hear from," he says. Although Clements has been at Tulane for 18 years, he says he does not know all the people in the university who are doing infectious disease-related work, but he hopes to get to know them. "We need to come together as a community,as a unit, as a group, as a family, if you will, to discuss our priorities."

Microbiology and immunology, parasitology in public health and tropical medicine, cell and molecular biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and adult and pediatric infectious diseases are obvious examples of departments involved in infectious-disease research.

But Clements says there are individuals doing infectious-disease research in other departments, such as math, whose connection to infectious-disease research is not so apparent. As members of Tulane's infectious-disease-research community have identified themselves, they have suggested people to serve on a team of external evaluators.

Clements says the evaluators will be well-known scientists who also have experience organizing departments or programs. Because infectious-disease research covers such an array of activity, Clements says the committee is looking for three different types of individuals for the evaluating team--a basic laboratory scientist, a clinician and a population expert. The team will visit Tulane for three or four days in the spring.

"The value of an external review," says Clements, "is that they can often see things that you can't see from the inside. We all think our areas are the most important and the best. But if the team of reviewers that comes in is of the quality and caliber of individuals that we are trying to select, they're not going to be snowed."

Before the external reviewing team gets here, however, infectious-disease researchers at Tulane will be doing a self-assessment, asking questions such as, what is the history of funding? Who has been published in national and international journals?

"We'll be looking at research productivity," says Clements. "We're trying to identify individuals, units or groups who have established records of extramurally funded, peer-reviewed research supported at the national level that pays significant indirect costs to the university because that's the kind of research that we want to encourage."

With the university's self-assessment in hand, the team of outside evaluators will conduct its own review and then submit a report. That report will "allow us to open a dialogue with senior administration," Clements says.

The infectious-disease research community can then say to the administration, "Okay, you have identified infectious diseases as a strategic planning priority. Within that broader context, these are the areas where we, the community, think you should focus your attention," he says.

One of the administrators most involved in long-range strategic planning is Yvette Jones, senior vice president for planning and administration. She points out that this is a " faculty-driven process" and that faculty members often review their areas. In this assessment-process part of strategic planning,

"It's a matter of coming back to the administration and talking about what the results are and then how we go forward," she says.

Faculty members in each of the other four strategic-plan research areas--neuroscience, gene therapy, aging and bio-environmental sciences--will engage in similar assessment processes during the next two and a half years. Presidential symposia also will be connected to them in formats chosen by faculty members in the concentration areas.

Clements can't predict which two or three aspects of infectious-disease research will emerge as priorities for his area. And he won't even venture to make a guess. He wants the assessment process to play out. "We want to be good stewards of the resources we've been given," he says.

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