THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LARGE COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS AND THE DEPARTMENT OF BIOSTATISTICS

by Dr. Paige Williams

The Department of Biostatistics has been fortunate in developing associations with prominent hospitals and health research institutes, both locally and nationally. Groups of faculty have succeeded in obtaining grants and contracts to serve as statistical coordinating centers for some national medical research investigations, such as the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG), the AIDS Clinical Trial Group (ACTG), and the Six Cities Study of the effect of air pollution on children. The Department of Biostatistics clearly benefits from the collaborative projects and research centers; collaboration in medically-oriented projects is what distinguishes biostatistics from pure statistics. Involvement in these public health projects stimulates creative statistical research by suggesting methodological issues arising in real-world problems. Graduate students also benefit from the wide array of medical investigations which can help in developing develop mastery of statistical methods and in serving as examples for thesis work. In addition, the financial support provided by several large collaboratives enables the Department to hire junior faculty; as Dean Fineberg stated, the total endowments to all schools within the Harvard University system cover only 20% of faculties' salaries.

Despite these advantages, financial dependence on these collaborative projects has a potentially detrimental effect on the development of research careers. Involvement in a collaborative project may require a faculty member to oversee the design and analysis of several large national clinical trials. This responsibility includes time-consuming administrative and routine tasks, such as reviewing data collection forms, participating in team conference calls, writing progress reports, supervising groups of statistical programmers, as well as analyzing the data and writing statistical reports. Loyalty towards research projects providing salary support can conflict with the independent methodologic statistical research necessary for success in an academic environment. As Associate Professor Dr. Louise Ryan noted, "If people are put into collaborative projects where their day-to-day activities are not research-related, then they're going to face an uphill battle." Senior faculty who oversee large research projects face the formidable task of keeping track of how well junior faculty are juggling multiple priorities, while also pursuing their own research interests.

Despite these concerns, large research projects remain an integral and overwhelmingly beneficial component of the Department's strength in biostatistical research. For the Department to continue to promote research careers, a balance must be achieved between the time and responsibilities dedicated to these projects and to independent research initiatives. Dr. Nan Laird affirmed, "As a School, we should come to terms with how we fund junior faculty positions."

While several funding sources specifically dedicated towards junior faculty are no longer available, the HSPH has begun offering a Junior Faculty Sabbatical program which provides funding support equivalent to one semester to three junior faculty members each year. Recent partnerships formed between the Biostatistics Department and both Schering-Plough and Pfizer also provide funds which are available to Biostatistics faculty members for directed research. Continued allocation of these types of research funds will help balance the Department's relationship with collaborative research projects and allow it to maintain its excellent reputation.

Last modified $Date: 1994/12/01 20:23:33 $ by Evelyn Ophir, ophir@hsph.harvard.edu