One of the key initiatives in The Way Forward was renewal for the Biomedical Sciences at the College of Medicine. Last summer I asked Dr. Jim Thornhill to lead this important initiative in collaboration with the five departments of the Biomedical Sciences.
Important progress has been made. The work has been divided up into programming and governance. A committee of faculty members from all five departments has looked at undergraduate programing in the biomedical sciences. Visits to Western, Queen’s and Dalhousie have taken place. Much information has been obtained and significant work on the principles that should guide our program planning has been done. I believe there is growing consensus to support the development of a combined medical sciences degree based in the CoM.
Recently, I have been meeting directly with the basic science department heads and we have had excellent discussions about the options before us. As many will recall proposals in the past had been put forward for a 1-department model and a 2-department model. In terms of further information gathering we recently had a very informative videoconference with Dr. Mike Adams of Queens University who are several years into a single department of biomedical sciences model.
While many options for a future governance model have been proposed, two models are now on the table: (1) a single “School of Biomedical Sciences” within the CoM that would work very much like the current School of Physical Therapy or (2) two departments. The “School” would have a vice-dean or associate dean as leader and would function with its own collegial governance structures.
Most recently I have been meeting with the departments to hear from individual faculty members and I would like to thank all for their participation and their candor. Rest assured I am listening with great interest and while I may have had a personal preference when this started, I am determined to be open to the options before us.
One question that I would like to address is “why change?”. I guess my first response is some surprise. The Way Forward was endorsed by Faculty Council and University Council and clearly called for the restructuring of the biomedical sciences into one\ or two units. As I review The Way Forward document today, I believe there are even greater reasons why we need to change than when it was adopted.
My personal goal is to see a unit(s) of the biomedical sciences as among the most successful faculty members and scientists on campus. My frequently stated goal of seeing us become the best “small” medical school in Canada is impossible without thriving biomedical scientists and superb education and research programs. Biomedical sciences have always been foundational to the success of medical schools. (Of course in the early years of medical schools there was not much clinical science worth knowing! J)
I see the “why” in terms of research success, education success, and financial success.
On the research front the world has already dramatically changed. Our biomedical scientists now work in multi-disciplinary labs and in research clusters. Many research resources, traditionally managed by departments, are now managed through the Health Sciences Council. Team-based (collaborative) science is now the norm and is certainly the only path to competitive funding. Throughout science and universities, disciplines are getting increasingly blurred and, depending on definitions, I wouldn’t be surprised if our current five departments don’t already have within them more than a dozen disciplines. None of this is either good or bad – it just is. So in a rapidly changing world which structure supports research most effectively?
In terms of further change within the college, we are restructuring our clinical departments so that they may grow and succeed. Our five-year financial plan calls for recruiting 10 new clinician scientists. The School of Physical Therapy wants to grow to include Occupational Therapy and Speech Language Pathology. What structure facilitates both collaboration and competition for resources across the CoM and across the U of S?
On the education front I firmly believe we must have an undergraduate program(s) that achieves three goals:
- Prepare students for a career in science and thus attract some of the best to our own graduate programs. I believe this degree will excite many top high school students and attract them to our college. The experience elsewhere confirms this. I also believe the breadth of such a degree provides graduate students with a “bigger toolbox” to pursue their passion in one of the biomedical sciences. (Reference: Page, Scott E. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 456. ISBN0-691-13854-0.)
- Provide students with the best possible preparation for the health professions. In the eternal debate about the art vs. the science in medicine I am increasingly convinced doctors (and other health professions) need greater scientific preparation than in the past.
- Provide students with a biomedical science degree that can lead directly to the job market or other graduate programs (health administration, public health, bio-medical engineering, etc.). At Dalhousie and other Canadian universities job market research showed that, with the addition of a couple of social science courses and one pathology course, the interest from industry in these graduates increased dramatically.
Finally, financially the university is moving to responsibility-centered management and the TABBS model of budget allocation. The former means we will have more autonomy (and the attendant risk) over how we spend our resources and the latter means that future budgets will in part be influenced by tuition revenue. It is well known that professional schools are not always well-served by the TABBS model because professional enrollments are fixed externally. It is imperative that we develop science educational programs that are based in the CoM and that those programs are highly competitive. Again, the experience elsewhere is that a combined biomedical sciences degree is highly attractive to high school students.
Success also takes resources. I am committed to supporting a creative and innovative group of biomedical scientists who work with us to find the best possible solutions. I hope for a future when we are adding faculty and staff positions in the biomedical sciences to support research success and education program growth.
So to paraphrase somebody: change is always hard but better is always change. My goal is better. I am listening to all perspectives and look forward to your feedback.