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UNC School of Social Work ranked fourth in national research expenditures

by Matthew Smith

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work is making a habit of appearing on “Top 10” lists.

Faculty, researchers, postdoctoral scholars, students, and research institute and centers’ staff helped the School earn another top national ranking this winter, placing in the top four of research and development (R&D) expenditures in the country.

Front of UNC School of Social Work building
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work was ranked fourth overall for schools of social work in research and development productivity in the latest National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development Survey.
The recognition came from the National Science Foundation’s annual Higher Education Research and Development Survey. The survey records research­ and development expenditures — funds that are spent for activities specifically allocated to produce research outcomes.

The School reported $18,958,000 in R&D expenditures in 2022, the latest data available for the survey. That placed UNC in the top four of all spending along with Columbia University, Washington University of St. Louis, and the University of Maryland.

That nearly $19 million was up more than $3 million from the School’s 2021 total.

The NSF lists institutions in two categories, including total R&D expenditures and federal R&D expenditures. Total expenditures include funds from federal, state and local governments, businesses, nonprofits, institutional spending, medical school spending, clinical trials, and more. Federal expenditures from field and federal agencies include the NSF, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and others. The School also ranked fourth in federal spending alone.

“The HERD report is important to us not because of our showing in the rankings, but because we know the impact behind the dollars,” Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson said. “We are fortunate to have highly productive and community responsive faculty who are leading our discipline in many areas of research, including health, mental health and health equity. The generation of significant research dollars is emblematic of our commitment to advancing the best science to yield solutions to some of the toughest challenges that we face today.”

Research status

As one of the most productive research institutions in the world, UNC has earned the designation as an R1 university.

The designation is a term used by the Carnegie Foundation, a U.S.-based education policy and research center, to categorize doctoral granting universities with the highest performance in key areas associated with research and development.

Those key areas include extramural research expenditures, number of doctoral degrees awarded, and the number of research staff such as postdoctoral employees, research associates, research faculty and research assistants, among other criteria. As of November 2023, there were 146 R1 universities. UNC ranks 12th in the nation for largest research volume and annual expenditures.

Research impact

Work led by researchers at the School has a profound impact across communities in North Carolina and beyond in the areas of health, economic security, children and family well-being, long-term care, and research systems.

“All our researchers translate their findings into interventions, programs and policies that are measurably creating change on behalf of so many,” Denby-Brinson said. “For example, through the INSPIRED Lab, led by Trenette Goings, we are advancing discoveries about health disparities and interventions proven to be effective in reducing adverse health and mental health outcomes among diverse populations.

Goings is the School’s Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor of Social Work.

“There are countless examples of our faculty and researchers improving lives through meaningful research projects,” Denby-Brinson said.

Examples of that impact include work led by the School’s Behavioral Health Springboard and the Jordan Institute for Families.

Led by Sarah Reives-Houston, director of the Behavioral Health Springboard, and Sarah Verbiest, firector of the Jordan Institute, both initiatives generate significant research funding from both state and federal sources that enables them to deliver proven interventions and programming into neighborhoods, communities and service agencies across the state and beyond.

New faculty researchers are continuing the School’s excellence in research, including Assistant Professor Tess Thompson, who joined the School last year.

Tess Thompson’s latest work involves surveying lower-income cancer patients and support persons after a patient’s breast or gynecologic cancer diagnosis to look for unmet needs for transportation, food or housing. That work, funded by the National Institutes for Health’s National Cancer Institute, will help determine what patients and caregivers need help with when seeking treatment and how to better provide those resources.

“Prior research has shown that these unmet needs are related to health and mental health outcomes in patients, but researchers know very little about whether caregivers’ unmet needs also affect the patient,” Thompson said. “My team will investigate whether caregivers’ unmet needs are associated with depressive symptoms, physical health and adherence to care in patients. If that’s the case, it would suggest clinicians should screen caregivers and connect them to resources as needed.”

Learn more about the University’s overall research impact at UNC Research.

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