'Report Card' Faults Research Universities' Impact on Global Health

April 04, 2013

A new "report card" that evaluates 54 American and Canadian research universities based on their contributions to "urgent global health" research and treatment gives only six institutions above-average grades, and awards an A to only one, the University of British Columbia. Twenty institutions received a D-plus or lower.

The University Global Health Impact Report Card was released on Thursday by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, an organization of medical and public-health students interested in promoting academic attention to global-health needs.

"On the whole there is very clear room for improvement," said Bryan Collinsworth, the organization's executive director.

Although about a billion people around the world suffer from malaria, sleeping sickness, Chagas' disease, and other "neglected" diseases, developers of the report card found that, on average, less than 3 percent of the research money at the 54 institutions was devoted to projects related to those diseases, and just over 2 percent of grants for training programs and the like had a focus on the neglected diseases.

The report card also found substantial variation among the institutions in the proportion of research and training funds devoted to neglected diseases (from a low of 0 percent to a high of 24 percent), suggesting that even when resources over all are scarce, institutions with an interest in promoting neglected-disease research can find ways to do it. For example, said Mr. Collinsworth, the report-card developers found higher levels of research financing and support for global-health studies at institutions that had created special centers on neglected diseases.

He said the universities organization had decided to undertake the project at the urging of groups like Doctors Without Borders, which felt that much of the discussion on ways to find cures for neglected diseases had focused on the role of governments, nongovernmental organizations, and drug companies, but "universities have been overlooked" for the impact they can have.

Doctors Without Borders and another group, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, joined the university alliance in announcing the findings in a telephone news conference.

The report card looked at the top recipients of medical-research funds in the United States and Canada and evaluated them in three broad categories: How much were the universities investing in innovative research to help neglected health needs of poor communities around the world? When commercializing their innovations, were they ensuring—through so-called socially responsible licenses or other tactics—that new treatments would remain available and affordable in the developing world? And what efforts were they making to provide educational opportunities to interested students?

The report card gives not only the overall grade for each institution but also the grade for each category. (Those become visible by holding a cursor over the name of the university.)

Because of the public funds they receive to conduct their research and their role in training the next generation of researchers, Mr. Collinsworth said, universities' records in global health deserve public attention. "There's really a unique role that they can and should be playing," he said.