SPH and its partners to design and run major new RWJF national interdisciplinary research leadership initiative

Sarah Howard | November 3, 2015

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has selected the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in collaboration with several external partners, to serve as the national center for its new Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL) program. The IRL is a major new initiative from the RWJF to develop diverse teams of interdisciplinary research leaders across the country to help advance the vision of building a culture of health. The RWJF is the nation’s largest private philanthropy focusing on the health of the United States.

The University of Minnesota-led team will work with RWJF to create and operate this new, long-term program. The broad goals of this initiative include identifying ways to promote interdisciplinary, action-oriented, and team-based approaches to population health research; nurturing more leaders who reflect our country’s diverse population; and explicitly developing research qualities needed to improve health and promote health equity for all Americans. The IRL team will work with the RWJF to develop and administer an innovative in-person and online curriculum for program participants and support innovative research that will be a driver for change in communities and policies. The IRL is being launched in concert with three other major RWJF programs focused on developing a culture of health.

The IRL is directed by SPH Associate Professor Michael Oakes, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, and co-directed by Jan Malcolm, vice president of public affairs at Allina Health — a pairing that exemplifies the multisector partnership that’s at the core of the program.

SPH Assistant Professor Sarah Gollust is the IRL’s associate director of curriculum; SPH Assistant Professor Ezra Golberstein is the IRL’s associate director of research. Both are in the Division of Health Policy and Management, as are senior advisor Professor Ira Moscovice and associate director for community engagement Professor Kathleen Call. Joe Konstan, the IRL’s associate director for information technology, is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

The University of Minnesota will design and run the IRL in collaboration with several external partners, including Allina Health, AcademyHealth, community organizations ISAIAH and the Twin Cities’ Local Initiatives Support Corporation (TC-LISC), and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The IRL program will train and support a large national network of three-person teams, including researchers from academic settings, health care and public health settings, and sectors outside of the health system, such as education, housing, or transportation. In partnership with community members the teams will design and implement community-oriented, policy-relevant research.

“RWJF wants us to fund and cultivate projects with immediate significance,” says Oakes. “Instead of a research project having a five-year timeline, for example, we’ll work to create an up-tempo environment to do things more quickly and more focused with smaller teams.”

These interdisciplinary teams will be working across the United States and follow an IRL-designed curriculum. They will be connected by a state-of-the-art communications and information-sharing network custom built by the associate director Joe Konstan. The network will enable participants in Alabama, for example, to regularly connect and integrate with those in Idaho or Maine.

Team members will be trained outside their normal working modalities to become more adept at community-oriented action research, and to take leadership roles in building a culture of health. For example, health economists will learn to do qualitative, on-the-ground research; physicians will learn about statistics; and community researchers will learn about the scientific method and ensure activities are practicable. It is expected that everyone will learn from each other about how to use research to drive change. IRL will support a 2-year research project for each team.

Minnesota is embracing the shift toward a culture of health and is an ideal location for a National Leadership Program Center. The state features an increasingly diverse population and is known for its health care and public health systems, while also leading the way in awareness, action and policy to help eliminate health disparities and achieve social justice.

“Through the IRL, we want to take the lessons we are learning from our work in Minnesota and appropriately transmit that learning to the rest of the country,” say Oakes.

The IRL will build on the School of Public Health’s extensive experience in coordinating successful RWJF national programs, including the Healthy Eating Research (HER) and State Health Access Data Center (SHADAC) programs.

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