Keeping The Momentum

NIH grant funding to IU School of Medicine has exploded in the last 10 years. How did it happen?

THE BIG NUMBERS are impressive—and seemingly simple to understand.

Ten years ago, IU School of Medicine’s annual research funding from the National Institutes of Health stood at $97 million. A decade later, that number stood at nearly $215 million.

What’s more complicated to grasp are the factors that brought about the explosive growth in research grants for the school that came as federal research spending plateaued and competition has grown fierce. Some key elements were at work.

When Dean Hess arrived in 2013, he set the priority for the school’s own investments in areas where it could be a national leader, such as research on Alzheimer’s disease and specific types of cancer, like multiple myeloma and breast cancer.

The school put money into core research facilities, such as biobanks, data science and gene sequencing tools. Enhancing these capabilities, school leaders say, is an essential aspect of recruiting scientists who may be drawn to a campus with better research tools.

Along with those tools—and robust philanthropic support—the school was able to attract even more talented researchers, many of whom have proven to be a fabulous return on the investments.

Over a decade, it came together to pay off in a huge way—with research grant totals more than doubling.

“You do everything you can to lower barriers and advise and support people because research is difficult,” said Hess. “When the culture is right, everyone in the organization sees some role in education and research and feels ‘that’s part of my job too.”

A portion of the gains were secured from scientists recruited from elsewhere, with the help of $2 million endowed chairs to support their work. A few examples include:

  • Liana Apostolova, MD, was recruited from UCLA in 2015 to become the Barbara and Peer Baekgaard Professor in Alzheimer’s Disease Research. She has subsequently received more than $78 million in NIH funding.
  • Bruce Lamb, PhD, came from Case Western Reserve University in 2016 to become the Roberts Family Professor of Alzheimer's Disease Research. He has received more than $149 million in grants.

Both were named a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University.

At the same time, the school became quite intentional in helping early and mid-career researchers grow their research portfolios and land their first grant. The School of Medicine started the Independent Investigator Incubator (I³) program, which pairs early career scientists—mostly assistant professors trying to get their first major external grant—with faculty who are passionate about mentoring and have a track record of securing funding. The early career researcher meets regularly with their mentor to put together a development plan, get guidance on research, and feedback on their grant application. The I³ program has helped faculty build better cases for funding and coached them on things such as the subtle art of grant writing.

“It’s one thing to say you’re going to write a grant,” said, Matthew Allen, PhD, who is the program’s director. “Then you hit any number of roadblocks that are so common. This program helps early-career faculty hit benchmarks and overcome many of the challenges they face when working toward their first big grant.”

Since 2014, the majority of the 140 early-career faculty in I³ have been awarded one or more extramural grants. The program has brought in more than $100 million in federal funding. “The grant process can be very intimidating and overwhelming,” Allen said. “Having a committed mentor walk alongside them can make all the difference.”




We’re teaching people to do more than practice status quo medicine. For our researchers, it’s not about the grants. It’s about having an impact on people’s lives.

Jay Hess, MD, PHD, MHSA

Dean, Indiana University School of Medicine

The labs will focus on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, but researchers there will also seek answers for Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Part of the purpose of the new building is to provide much-needed research space for the School of Medicine, which has seen its National Institutes of Health research grants double in the last decade. Grants pay for research, but not the spaces where it’s done. And lab space is now at a premium, especially in neuroscience.

The Roberts gift is expected to support equipping lab space for 42 researchers, faculty and lab support spaces, precision tools for research, and specialty areas such as brain and tissue banks.

“We are so grateful for this generous gift from Dave and Susan,” said IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, MD, PHD, MHSA. “Their support of our neuroscience research has been nothing short of extraordinary. This gift comes at a crucial time, giving us room to expand our work, attract new talent, and make important discoveries.”

The Roberts have previously supported brain imaging research and drug discovery projects, fellowships for young researchers, and a powerful PET-MRI scanner that’s one of a few of its kind in the world. They also funded the creation of a new faculty chair used to recruit Bruce Lamb, PhD, from the Cleveland Clinic.



Lamb—the Roberts Family Professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research—is an internationally-recognized expert in Alzheimer’s disease research and Executive Director of the Stark Neurosciences Research Institute at IU.

Since his arrival in 2015, Lamb has come to know Dave and Susan well. He’s discussed with them where Alzheimer’s research is headed and has been impressed not only by their generosity but also their grasp of what he and others are trying to do.

“Dave and Susan have not only been tremendous partners in our work, but they’re also just good people,” Lamb said. “They ask great questions and they have a heartfelt interest in sparing future generations from the devastating effects of neurodegenerative disease. There is no question that their ongoing support has helped speed our efforts. We’re so thankful for their support.”

Dave had a lengthy career in business. And he’s sponsored, collected and driven race cars—so he appreciates the importance of going fast. But he also understands the years of work that go into building a strong business or a fast car. He says, when it comes to neurodegenerative diseases, he knows the returns on his investments could take years or even decades.

“Would we like to see something immediately? Of course. But we recognize that research is going to take a long time,” Dave said. “So, we recognize it is a long-term fight to get there, but we’re OK with that.”

Learn more about the new medical education and research building.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Bobby King

Bobby King is the director of development and alumni communications in the Office of Gift Development. Before joining the IU School of Medicine in 2018, Bobby was a reporter with The Indianapolis Star. Before that he was a reporter for newspapers in Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida.