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Q & A with Dr. Andrew Baird

baird-andrew.jpegDepartment of Surgery Represented on University Committee on Research Policy by its Chair, Dr. Andrew Baird

UC San Diego's Andrew Baird, PhD, has spent most of his academic life pursuing research. Currently the Vice Chair for Research for the Department of Surgery, Baird's interest in research has led him to a position as chair of the University Committee on Research Policy (UCORP), which is a component of the University of California's Academic Senate. Here we talk with Prof. Baird about his life, how he got interested in UCORP and what he's gotten out of the board as both a member of the Department of Surgery, and as an individual.

What is the purpose of the University Committee on Research Policy?
UCORP has many different responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to look at funding mechanisms that come out of the UC Office of the President (UCOP). The UCOP funds a significant amount of research, including multi-institute research units (MRUs). These are groups of investigators who have come together between different UCs and they want to work together. The central office, through research and innovation, plays a role in helping them overcome the barriers behind working together. We work to evaluate how that work is going and make recommendations to the academic counsel: Does it merit the badge of MRU? Does it merit the kind of funding it's getting or not? It's a scientific review of performance. By merit of that, we get to see whether policies can be tweaked to enhance undergraduate and graduate experience.

Because our membership includes people in health sciences, humanities, psychology and nuclear physics, it's research across the board. It's very interesting and informs in terms of the extraordinary scope of work that's taking place across this organization. This is certainly a melting pot of intellectual diversity and different ways of looking at things. You find that when presented with a problem, everybody looks at the solution a different way.

What is your role as chair of UCORP and for how long is your term?
Normally, you're chair for one year. I was chair last year and they asked me to do it for another year and I said yes. As chair, my role is to identify the issues that need to be addressed and see if we can develop a consensus. One of the things I tried to do at the beginning of the year is to get an idea of what's important to everybody on the committee and the committees that they represent. Their responsibility is to bring those things to the table, and we talk about them in a common kind of way. We've become really interested in data ownership and information management, or what happens to your information as a researcher on a personal level and how policies can make sure you're protected as an investigator. It's very rewarding on a personal growth level.

Why is it notable that someone from Health Sciences would lead this committee?
I bring to the committee the perspective of health sciences and within health sciences, I bring in the perspective of surgery. It's rather unusual, it turns out, for health sciences faculty to be involved in this capacity, mostly because as a population we're really busy on other things so we tend to take less active engagement in this side of faculty matters. We are, as a class, largely unrepresented and the way we approach our mission is very different than how it gets approached on the general campus. For example, the average senate faculty on campus is most likely a tenured professor whereas the average senate faculty in Health Sciences is someone like me who isn't — it's either a researcher, assistant professor or professor in residence. These groups gain strength by consisting of  people that come from as diverse backgrounds as possible in terms of their professional experience. That's what makes it a learning experience all around, because hopefully people bring that experience back to where they started from.

How does the work of UCORP affect Departments of Surgery across the UC system, and in particular at UC San Diego?
I represent surgery interests in an environment where it's not represented and has rarely, if ever, been represented before. I've spent a lot of my time educating my peers about how our clinicians are compensated and what their contribution to our educational and research mission is. That gets balanced within the framework of being a member of the community. Surgeons, by reputation, are way too busy to be involved in this. I'm not a surgeon, but I feel like I represent the department specifically and help in decreasing the silos that might exist.

What have been some of your accomplishments on this committee?
One of the things I was really interested in was the reproducibility crisis in research. This is the notion that we're in a crisis moment where 70% of the research being published in science and nature is not reproducible. This is an embarrassment. If 70% of the bridges fell, we would be holding engineers accountable. That's one of the things that we've been looking at and it's a very, very difficult activity. It got usurped by so many things that were happening at a federal level related to fetal research or xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, all of which has had a dramatic effect on research policy.

One of the things that I'm most proud of relates to our efforts on two things. One is the importance of scholarly communication and publishing and supporting the openness of that. The federal government has been possessive of federally funded research, but  research is really for everybody. We need to be able to publish and communicate with people about what we are doing. There's a certain open-ness in research that is fundamental to being an academic.

My other passion relates to the climate crisis. That's something that to me is incredibly educational. To this issue, I think I bring a truly unique health sciences surgery philosophy. We got the Academic Senate to accept three main principles for research on climate change that deal with things that we see in health sciences all of the time. We need to be working together on this. No one group has all the information. We need to bring in the people that do humanities research, psychologists, behaviorists, psychiatry — we need to bring in much more than just climate researchers. Extraordinary activities are happening on campus all over the place, but nobody is talking to each other.

How do you mediate change when it comes to working on these wide-spread issues?
One of the things that we came up with is: Why aren't we investing more in telemedicine? Here we have this fabulous Center for the Future of Surgery at UC San Diego. Instead of having patients drive 150 miles from the central valley to come here, why don't we invest in true telemedicine where surgeons are communicating with patients and with their colleagues. You can see some of these collaborations starting to take place because people in the computer science and engineering are looking into building avatars of the operating room. And this is the future if we're going to live in a low-carbon environment. The good news I've learned is that this is a crisis that is completely man-made, therefore we can solve it.