Rebecca Cunningham is spearheading a research initiative to make the world a safer place for children.
With $5 million in funding from the NIH, she’s undertaking the first firearm safety research in 30 years. A practicing emergency room physician and mother of five teenagers, Cunningham founded the Firearm Safety Among Children & Teens Consortium and is poised to make a significant impact in public safety.
She shares with us why this research is happening now and why the business community should get involved.
What is your research focus?
In a nutshell, my research is preventing children and teenagers from being injured by firearms.
Firearms are the second leading cause of death for kids – twice the rate from cancer. It’s a problem in both rural
and urban settings with teenagers dying at about the same rates across all our communities.
We are jump starting this field. There’s been an absence of federal funding for many years and a suppression of science around this topic, so there’s a big lack of data on solutions. Without federal funding available, there’s become a lack of researchers capable of undertaking projects in this field. This funding is the beginning of a much needed change.
What is FACTS?
The Firearm Safety Among Children & Teens Consortium is comprised of 12 institutions and 30 faculty experts across country.
We are working at early level of where were in car safety was in 1960s – looking at very basic questions. There are so many things don’t know, things like how many kids really get shot in US every year. Firearm safety research is at such an early stage that we don’t fully know the questions we need to ask until we get some basic data created.
How do you create safety research?
Let’s think about car safety. We live in the auto state, so we understand what can be done around car safety. It wasn’t always that way; the auto industry was very much against safety research, but the culture of safety grew, and the industry grew along with it. Now it is pervasive, affecting engineering, roads, people, cars, behavior, and so much more. There is broad societal interest to all work towards collective safety. This all took a lot of data, and we’ve had researchers across U-M working on auto safety research for 50 years.
Today, our culture expects cars to be safe right, and auto companies lead the way in helping make that happen. We are now just starting to understand in our country the magnitude of problems we have around firearms, and we need to catch up in getting data. For example the country does not have good estimates of how many children and adolescents are shot every year.
What is happening at U-M?
Our group of experts has identified a list of 25 points of most urgent research gaps that need to be done first and 10 projects now that start to address these questions with $25-50k funding for each. We are gathering funds to address the rest.
At U-M we have eight faculty funded, but I have an inbox full of U-M students and faculty all over the state of Michigan who want to come to train with us, and I don’t have funding to bring them on board.
What is the intersection of this research, our communities and the economy?
We see an overwhelming number of Americans saying we should focus on solving the problem at hand – across the aisle and all over the country. People can and should rally around saving kids and having safer communities
This is a science problem, not just a social problem, and it’s not too complex to fix.
This is a basic injury prevention problem. It can be solved the same way we decided to fence pools and kids stopped drowning. It can be affected the same way ads and public health messaging and campaigns on change smoke alarm batteries on your birthday led to fewer kids dying in fires.
This is bipartisan research. We have no agenda or plan or process that includes having less guns in country. There are two basic facts serving as a foundation for our research:
- Gun injury is preventable. There is a lot we do to increase firearms saftey and decrease death and injury among children.
- This is solely about firearm safety, not about gun “control”. We do not propose to reduce the number of guns, simply to increase firearm safety in homes, families and communities.
How is this relevant to industry?
Many companies are invested in social justice issues that affect our society. This research appeals to organizations that have such a mission focus or are interested in programs that promote an able bodied workforce. We are also just starting to quantify the tremendous health care costs of firearm injuries with some research estimates that costs are as high as $911 million in inpatient hospitalizations nationwide annually to care for over 30,000 people who are shot each year.
What do partnerships look like?
Funding trainees or co-funding projects that aid in collecting data would be really great. We have a large list of basic research projects we’d like funded as soon as possible. Public awareness of safety data and other communication strategies can be good partnership opportunities as well.
Rebecca Cunningham is a Professor of Emergency Medicine, Director of the Injury Prevention Center, Associate Vice President for Research-Health Sciences, U-M Office of Research, and Principal Investigator of Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens (FACTS)An article in Science magazine on Cunningham, her career and her research can be found here.