Heading on a New Mission, the Mother Ship of Health Philanthropy Wants More Answers

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is famously filled with research wonks and data fiends. And because this is a place always seeking a better empirical handle on things, it's no surprise that it wants the best possible research on its side as it undertakes its mighty crusade to create a "culture of health." 

Or, to put things differently, there's no way this foundation is going to be flying blind on the most ambitious mission it's ever undertaken. 

So it is that RWJF recently announced that it was laying out a whopping $25 million over three years for new health research. The money will go to fund "innovative research on policies, laws, system interventions, and community dynamics that improve health and well-being, with emphasis on sectors not typically associated with health, such as transportation and housing."

That last part is interesting and shows the wide net this funder is casting to improve health, as other foundations are also doing these days. Looking "upstream" at how and where people live and go about their lives, national and state funders agree, is one key to finding new insights and solutions. But even as big funders like Kresge, Atlantic, and the Colorado Health Foundation spend millions in this area, RWJF is unique in the experience and capacity it brings to answering complex questions about how to improve population health. It's the mother ship of health philanthropy, with $10 billion in assets, a visionary captain, and a long history of using evidence-based research to tackle many of the nation’s most difficult heath challenges. Now, as RWJF's top data maven put it, ”we want to go even deeper to address root causes of inequitable health outcomes and possible solutions based in creative collaboration across sectors and disciplines." That would be Alonzo Plough, chief science officer and vice president of research, evaluation and learning at RWJF.

The collaboration piece is key, and it's likely that the foundation's findings from this effortassuming they're noteworthyare likely to offer guidance to a great many health funders, providers, community groups, and government agencies. 

The new money will go to explore a range of questions that RWJF confronts as it seeks to advance a culture of health. 

First, a big chunk will go to the University of California, San Francisco, to support different research efforts needed to build an overall evidence base for a culture of health. The foundation has talked about a lot of different strategies for improving healthfrom getting kids to walk to school to changing dietsand clearly it's hungry for better answers on which avenues are the most promising to pursue. 

Second, funds will go to Temple University to explore the "policies, laws and regulations in both the public and private sectors to support a culture of health." As we've reported previously, for the past six years, Temple’s Public Health Law Research Program has worked with RWJF, looking at the regulatory dimension of health, so this new effort builds on existing work. 

Related: A Smarter, More Muscular Nanny State: RWJF's Push to Bolster Public Health Law

Third, the University of Kentucky (also an existing partner of RWJF) will get funds to work another crucial front in the push for improved healthcreating systems that deliver better health care at a low cost. Here, the foundation is interested in looking beyond the usual players in health, and says it's "seeking new relationships with experts in fields not traditionally associated with health and building a broader capacity in population health science." That idea goes to looking upstream at the complex causes of poor health. Also, it makes sense that when a field is stuck, it should look to other disciplines to help move the ball forward. 

And, boy, is the United States stuck. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. leads the world in per capita health spending, yet in survey after survey of the planet’s healthiest nations, it doesn’t crack the top 10. Clearly, something's not working here.

Just to be clear: Not all of that $25 million will stay in the three institutions mentioned above, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says it will soon be releasing more information for grantseekers looking to get in on this new body of work.