New Connections: An Update
When the New Connections' leadership team recently got together at OMG's office, (from left to right: Sharon Norris, Program Consultant; Howard Walters, Project Coordinator; Debra J. Perez, RWJF Senior Program Officer; Gerri Spilka, National Program Director; Taiwanna Messam, RWJF Policy Analyst Fellow; and Edith Arrington, New Connections Deputy Director), they talked about the program's origins, the scholars who receive research grants, and described the program's ambition to build a nationwide network of support among historically underrepresented researchers in the health and healthcare fields.
New Connections has grown steadily since its launch in 2005. Why did the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation create the program?
D.J.P.: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a long standing commitment to diversity and recognized the opportunity to increase our access to previously untapped talent from under-represented communities. New Connections made an explicit call to the community of researchers that reflect the populations we serve.
S.N.: And the initiative is working. There are seven program areas at the foundation and all seven are committed to achieving diversity. The managers in each program area are actively involved with both current and former New Connections grantees.
T.M.: Program managers have seen how the perspectives of New Connections grantees add depth to research by offering personal insights when framing culturally responsive research questions, understanding collected data, and interpreting the data.
E.A.: And, diversity enhances the quality of research outcomes. Many Americans who are underserved and face heathcare challenges are members of the same groups we're supporting through New Connections. This, too, is part of the link between diversity and program excellence.
New Connections awards 24-month research grants to junior scholars who have spent less than seven years in their field after receiving a Ph.D., and 12-month grants to mid-career scholars with 10 - 15 years of research or evaluation experience. What do you look for in a New Connections candidate?
H.W.: We like candidates who are eager to interact with the foundation's program staff during the application process. This demonstrates that the applicant values a relationship with the foundation and is likely to utilize the connection.
E.A.: We also want grantees who take advantage of all that's offered by the program, which includes mentorships, collaborations, and semiannual coaching events and technical seminars that support professional networking and learning.
D.J.P.: Strong applications also make it clear that they'll seek to publish the research supported by the grant, and that they'll share their work at conferences and other academic forums. We want to advance the careers of our grantees, to have them become leaders in their field, and to continue to support the research interests of the foundation. We hope grantees remain engaged as alumni and recruit new applicants for the program.
So, the program supports the building of a network among its scholars as well as funding individual research projects?
D.J.P.: Absolutely. One key lesson I've learned is that if you want to have an impact in any field, you have to do more than just give grants. You have to build a network by drawing in as broad a group as possible.
E.A.: There are currently 650 researchers in the New Connections network - all have Ph.D.s. The network includes everyone who applies for a grant or is considering an application - these scholars are invited to program events and their participation is underwritten by the foundation. We're partnering with other groups that have a similar mission, such as Brothers of the Academy. We host receptions, make presentations, and participate in panel discussions at professional meeting. And, we're using social media to expand and strengthen our network. Our goal is to have 1,000 in the network by 2012.
Why was the program moved from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the OMG Center?
D.J.P.: Few programs are managed within the foundation. We rely heavily on strong external partners. OMG was selected to be the national program office for New Connections because of its solid track record in grant management, and experience with programs that bridge the diversity gap.
G.S.: We're thrilled to host New Connections. The program embodies one of OMG's core objectives: to improve the lives of people in under-served communities. To effectively address longstanding policies that result in enormous gaps in achievement between well-served and underserved communities, we must support culturally appropriate research and evaluation while nurturing diverse talent.
For more information about New Connections, visit the New Connections website at www.rwjf-newconnections.org.