By Hyun Namkoong

The evaluation of how well public-health dollars are spent in nations across the globe received a major boost yesterday, with the announcement of the second-largest research grant UNC-Chapel Hill has ever received.

A group of deans, researchers and politicians gathered at the Carolina Inn for Chancellor Carol Folt’s announcement of a $180 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and TKTK celebrate their U.S.AID grant with a cake and balloons.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and MEASURE Evaluation project director Jim Thomas celebrate their U.S.AID grant with a cake and balloons. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

The recipient is the university’s Carolina Population Center for its Monitoring and Evaluation to Access and Use Results Evaluation project, more commonly known as MEASURE Evaluation.

“[Funding] is for phase four of this project and it will keep the work going for another five years,” Folt said.

The MEASURE Evaluation project is the U.S. AID’s flagship program for identifying gaps in data, collecting and analyzing data and making decisions to fund projects based on data.

In the past, many projects had been funded based on political favors or hunches, according to Jim Thomas, MEASURE Evaluation project director and an associate professor of epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Better data has helped change that paradigm throughout the developing world.

The goal of the project is to measure and evaluate public-health programs worldwide to ensure government dollars in 80 countries are used wisely.

The overall emphasis of phase four, Thomas said, “is to build sustainability so that these [health information] systems can continue on long term without us.”

Sustainability has long been identified as a priority of public-health projects, particularly those implemented in low- and middle-income countries.

Among those attending the press conference were Rep. David Price; Aldona Wos, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services; and representatives from the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

The MEASURE Evaluation project began in 1997 and has received funding from a number of sources, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The project has developed several methodologies for collecting data to better inform public-health programs and policies, especially in the areas of reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

“Monitoring and evaluation – what’s important here is that not only are we applying a toolkit, we’re inventing the toolkit,” said Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor for research at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Benefits to the state

While the focus of MEASURE Evaluation is on global health and strengthening health information systems worldwide, Folt and Thomas believe that North Carolinians will benefit from the $180 million grant.

“It’s a global project with a lot of local influence,” Folt said. “It’s supported more than 100 jobs here in North Carolina.”

Folt also said that research at UNC has led to the creation of spinoff companies such as FHI 360, which is headquartered in Durham.

MEASURE Evaluation has worked on public-health projects for infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS in South Africa and tuberculosis in Latin America, both of which can result in epidemics, or even pandemics.

“Epidemics that are controlled worldwide are less able to affect our own country,” Thomas said.

He also said that the Triangle has become a hub for global-health research similar to how Wilmington has become a hub for the film industry.

When asked about how phase four of the MEASURE Evaluation project might directly affect and translate into health improvements for North Carolinians, Thomas said, “We don’t have [anything] in place for making sure that it translates, but that’s something that we would be very much open to talking about.”

“For decades, I did work domestically in epidemiology in the public sector,” he said. “I would be very interested in talking to anyone who wanted [to learn] about how we could translate some of these things that we’re doing in MEASURE Evaluation to benefit, in particular, some of the rural areas of the state.”

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.