Addiction Research Centres and the Nurturing of Creativity; The Research Institute on Addictions, University at Buffalo


Gerard J. Connors, Research Institute on Addictions, 1021 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14203, USA. E-mail:


The Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) was established in 1970 as a research component of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. After three decades of serving as a research component of New York State agencies concerned with alcohol and substance abuse, RIA was legislatively transferred to the University at Buffalo in 1999. Today, RIA's cadre of senior research scientists are engaged individually and collaboratively on a multitude of addictions-related studies. The majority of the Institute's ongoing research studies relate to one or more of the following seven broad research domains: causes and consequences of alcohol, marijuana and other drug use; biological and neuroscience; gambling behavior; gender-related studies; dissemination and professional training; treatment; and youth, families and relationships. In this paper, an overview of the structure of the Institute is provided, along with a description of the organizational and scientific culture at RIA. Further information about the Institute, its scientists and its activities can be found at


The University at Buffalo (UB) Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) was founded in 1970, and the preparation of this paper coincided with the Institute's fortieth anniversary as a contributor to knowledge and understanding of a host of issues related to addictions. Over the decades, the mission of RIA has consistently been to contribute to three broad areas of research: the etiology, prevention and treatment of addictions; the social, psychological and neurophysiological aspects of addictions; and the health and medical aspects of addictions.

Initially established as the Research Institute on Alcoholism, RIA was incorporated within the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. Dr Cedric Smith, a pharmacologist and experienced researcher, was appointed as the first director of the Institute. Later, and for most of the first three decades of its existence, RIA operated as a research unit of the New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, a state agency charged with the development and regulation of the state's system of alcoholism treatment agencies. As will be described further below, RIA remained with this state agency until 1999, at which point the Institute was legislatively transferred to UB.

In 1980, Dr Ben Morgan Jones, a researcher especially known for his studies on the effects of alcohol on intellectual and cognitive performance, joined the Institute as director. He was followed in this position by Dr Howard Blane, a renowned researcher who joined RIA in 1986. Dr Blane was widely recognized for his work on the use of alcohol in early adulthood, policy issues in prevention and psychosocial aspects of alcohol use disorders.

It was under the leadership of Dr Blane that RIA experienced an especially significant period of growth as an addictions research institute. As part of his recruitment as director, Dr Blane negotiated for the addition of five new research scientist lines to the Institute roster, which markedly increased the scientific breadth at RIA. In addition, Dr Blane encouraged and fostered an increased attention to and facilitation of the development of grant applications for external funding in order to better position RIA's scientists to conduct programmatic research.

Following Dr Blane's retirement, Dr Gerard Connors was appointed director in 1998, and he has served in this capacity since then. Dr Connors' research has revolved predominantly around the issues of treatment outcome evaluation, treatment process and relapse.

A pair of noteworthy events should be mentioned in the context of RIA's evolution over the years. First, RIA's name was changed from the Research Institute on Alcoholism to the Research Institute on Addictions in 1992, reflecting an expansion of our research focus to include the use and abuse of other drugs. It was during this period that RIA scientists also began studying gambling behavior and pathology. Secondly, and more significant in many ways, was the legislative transfer of RIA to UB in 1999. This transfer, which was supported by all parties concerned, including the staff of RIA, was prompted largely by the belief and expectation that the accomplishment of RIA's mission would best be realized in a traditional academic environment. Based on our experiences over the past decade, our incorporation into UB has been very successful and productive on a number of fronts, including the establishment of numerous new collaborative relationships with scientists across a number of UB units and departments.


Location and facility

RIA is physically located in the City of Buffalo in the rapidly evolving Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), a consortium of the region's premier health care, life sciences research and medical education institutions. UB's presence in the BNMC has been rapidly growing, and the area is gradually emerging as the ‘Downtown Campus’ of UB. Plans for the future include the relocation of UB's health sciences programs to this area.

RIA operates and is the sole occupant of a five-storey facility (approximately 84 000 gross square footage). Research facilities within RIA include an animal facility comprised of dedicated research laboratories, equipment and animal housing; the RIA Clinical Research Center, an out-patient substance abuse treatment program through which many of RIA's clinical studies operate; computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) facilities for the conduct of national telephone surveys; an ‘experimental bar’ environment; a naturalistic ‘living room’ research environment; and a psychophysiology laboratory.

Reporting arrangements

RIA's reporting relationship within UB is to the Provost/Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. This long-standing reporting relationship has been ideal for a research center as cross-disciplinary as RIA, and the University and the Institute have benefited significantly from a reporting relationship that transcends the traditional decanal structure.


Funding for the conduct of research, the support of staff (research as well as infrastructure staff) and the maintenance of the facility is derived from three streams. The first includes the direct costs associated with grant awards received from external funding agencies (predominantly from the National Institutes of Health). These funds are used for the conduct of the research activity associated with these awards. The second stream of funds includes RIA's allocation of Facilities and Administrative Costs (previously called Indirect Costs, and sometimes called overhead). These funds predominantly are used for a variety of infrastructure purposes, including the support of infrastructure employees (including administrative assistants, a graphics artist and staff working in the Computer Services Department, in the RIA Library and in the Grants and Contracts, Business and Human Resources offices). Importantly, these funds also are used to support or ‘bridge’ scientists who are only partially supported by research grants and/or are between grant funding (e.g. awaiting receipt of a grant award). The third source of funding is an annual allocation from New York State as part of the annual budget for the State University of New York (which includes UB). This State allocation supports 34 lines, 16 of which are Research Scientist lines (including the Director and Deputy Director positions); the remainder of the State supported lines include building maintenance, administrative and Clinical Research Center positions. The State allocation also covers a wide range of infrastructure costs, including utilities, internal renovations, security and housekeeping.

Grants development and management

A variety of infrastructure supports and services are provided to assist scientists in the development of their grant applications and in their post-award management when funded. When a new grant application is being contemplated by a scientist, a meeting is held with the scientist around 5–6 weeks prior to the submission date. In addition to the scientist, attendees include RIA's Grants and Contracts Officer, the manager of RIA's Computer Services Department, the RIA Business Office manager, the RIA Human Resources manager, a Grants Development Specialist and an administrative assistant assigned to work with the scientist. The scientist provides an overview of the planned project, and information is gathered on all aspects of the proposed research activity so that a budget and associated justification can be developed. For example, the manager of the Computer Services Department will provide inputs on data collection options (and associated costs), depending on the nature, intensity and frequency of data to be gathered. Subsequently, an overall budget is prepared, along with a draft budget justification, for the review of the scientist. The Grants Development Specialist also prepares, in collaboration with an administrative assistant, the array of bureaucratic aspects of the application. As such, scientists are in a position to focus predominantly on the development of the science. When an application is in near-final form, it will often be sent out to be reviewed by one or more external reviewers who are expert in the topic being addressed in the application. The feedback provided over the years by these external reviewers (who are paid a modest honorarium) has been immensely beneficial in the development of the final version of the application submitted ultimately to the funding agency for review.

Computer services department

RIA's CSD plays an integral role in both the administrative and scientific functioning of the Institute. On the administrative front, the Domino Database (Lotus Notes) is threaded into almost every administrative function in the building. It manages HR, Business Office and administrative routing approval systems and maintains a confidential database of employee information. The Domino Database also is used extensively by projects for tracking appointments, screening subjects, randomly assigning ID numbers, providing a summary sheet of subject data, tracking subject fee payments and central project management. CSD staff work closely and collaboratively with the research project staff at all stages of their projects. Indeed, CSD essentially ‘travels’ with a project from its inception at the initial budget meeting through customized data entry methods and on to the completion of a data set. Projects have a robust range of tools at their disposal with which to gather data (e.g. paper and pencil interviews, Teleform scan forms, web-based surveys). CSD also offers users several Industry Standard Databases with which to manage their data (e.g. Oracle, SQL, MySQL, Sawtooth). Interviews can be conducted off-site via a connection with RIA's web services. Data collected are stored on encrypted servers and behind several security gates to ensure confidentiality. CSD is able to tailor-fit user interfaces for the scientists from which to read their data (e.g. Lotus Notes, SPSSMR, Oracle) based on user capability and familiarity with programs. Because CSD programmers and staff are on-site, scientists are afforded the opportunity to speak quickly and directly to the CSD staff working on their projects. Finally, an array of statistical software packages are available.

Clinical research center

RIA's CRC was established in 1990 and is certified by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. This alcoholism and substance abuse out-patient treatment program was designed specifically for clinical research and is utilized to test and apply innovative treatment strategies within the context of carefully controlled research protocols.


There are approximately 180 individuals employed at RIA, the majority working on funded projects in either a full-time or part-time capacity. Twenty-six individuals are designated as Senior Research Scientists, a status which reflects having held or currently holding an externally funded grant award. Sixteen of RIA's Senior Research Scientists (including the Director and Deputy Director) are in State-funded lines (which provide guaranteed salary coverage) and 10 are in lines funded by their grant awards and/or RIA infrastructure funds.

Senior research scientists

RIA's Senior Research Scientists represent a variety of disciplines, which has facilitated a wide diversity of research activities within the Institute's portfolio. These disciplines, broadly defined, and the scientists currently associated with them, are as follows: applied biopsychology (Dr Rebecca Houston), behavioral neuroscience (Dr Alexis Thompson), behavioral psychology (Dr Kathleen Parks), clinical psychology (Drs Clara Bradizza, Gerard Connors, Ronda Dearing, Kurt Dermen, Kenneth Leonard, Neil McGillicuddy, Robert Rychtarik, Paul Stasiewicz and Kimberly Walitzer), counseling psychology (Dr Christopher Barrick), design and statistics (Dr Joseph Lucke), developmental psychology (Dr Rina Eiden), educational psychology (Dr Jennifer Livingston), neuroscience (Dr Samir Haj-Dahmane), physiological psychology (Dr Roh-Yu Shen), psychobiology (Dr Jerry Richards), social/organizational psychology (Dr Michael Frone), social psychology (Drs Brian Quigley and Maria Testa), sociology (Drs Grace Barnes, Amy Hequembourg and Kathleen Miller) and survey epidemiology (Dr John Welte). In addition to their full-time appointments at RIA, our scientists typically hold adjunct appointments in various departments at UB (e.g. psychology, sociology), which have been very conducive to the development of productive collaborative connections.

A particularly salient feature of our scientist positions is that all of our scientists are full-time at RIA, and are not ‘on-loan’ or affiliated temporarily with the Institute from another academic unit of the university. As a result, RIA is truly the ‘home’ for each of our scientists.

Project and infrastructure staff

The remainder of the RIA staff are engaged in direct research activities on funded projects (as project directors, research technicians, therapists, data analysts and so on), serve in research infrastructure positions or serve in positions maintaining the facility (e.g. building engineers, building maintenance).

Associate research scientists

A number of Associate Research Scientists from across UB are affiliated with RIA by virtue of their collaborations with RIA scientists. These scientists are from such units as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Dental Medicine, Engineering and Applied Sciences, Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Nursing, Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Public Health and Health Professions and Social Work. Such collaborations have proved to be fruitful scientifically and mutually beneficial.


Research development program

The RDP was established more than 20 years ago to internally support pilot studies. Applicants submit a five-page research proposal to the Research Development Committee, which reviews the proposal on criteria such as feasibility, rationale, methodology and potential to enhance the prospects for a subsequent external grant application. With preliminary data being central to the scientific review of applications submitted to external funding agencies, the investments provided through the RDP have been returned multi-fold.

Seminar series

RIA has a long history of presenting multi-disciplinary seminars in which nationally and internationally prominent researchers present their research. Each semester (fall and spring) of the Seminar Series typically includes three monthly presentations by external researchers, along with a fourth presentation by a RIA researcher. Each external seminar presenter spends a minimum of 1 day at RIA, during which time he/she meets with RIA scientists individually and in small groups.

Beginning in 1998, RIA's Seminar Series also has included yearly day-long statistics work-shops. The work-shops are designed to provide training in state-of-the-science statistical techniques and are open to all RIA staff. These work-shops have focused on topics such as logistic regression, missing data analysis, statistical mediation analysis, advances in longitudinal structural equation modeling, statistical power, survival analyses and Bayesian statistics.

Postdoctoral training

The Institute operates a postdoctoral research training program that has been generously funded since 2000 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The program is focused on two primary areas: (i) the etiology and course of alcohol use and misuse and (ii) treatment for alcohol use disorders. The goal of the program, which supports six postdoctoral fellows, is to produce scientists who are thoroughly trained to conduct systematic research on these and related topics. Most of our postdoctoral fellows have been recipients of RIA Research Development Fund funding and they typically have a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant submitted or in development by the end of their enrollment in the program.

Publishing/conference presentations

RIA's scientists are active contributors to scientific knowledge in the addictions, whether it be through papers in peer-reviewed journals, invited presentations or presentations at national and international conferences. Decisions on publication outlets are fully in the hands of the scientist, and there are no centralized reviews or constraints operating in this regard. Most publications appear in addictions-specific journals, although a significant number are published in discipline-specific journals (e.g. clinical psychology, biochemistry, neurosciences, sociology).


RIA distributes information on new grant awards and research results to the local and national media on a regular basis. The Institute also produces two newsletters: the RIA Report (which includes updates about general RIA activities, announcements of new grant awards, etc.) and Research in Brief (which includes synopses of research results geared towards treatment providers and the public at large). RIA also produces an Annual Research Report. (These documents are available for viewing at In addition, RIA's scientists often provide expert commentary to local and national news outlets; teach or co-teach classes on addictions; and make presentations at local educational institutions and at meetings of local civic organizations.

Service to the field

RIA scientists regularly provide service to the field, reflecting our belief in the importance of such citizenship. Examples include serving as Editorial Board members, Consulting Editors and ad hoc reviewers; as members of grant review panels; as elected officials in professional organizations; as members of program committees for the annual meetings of professional organizations; as members of thesis and dissertation committees; and as external reviewers for promotion and tenure decisions.


It is not a straightforward task to compartmentalize RIA's diverse research projects into discrete categories, in large part because many of our current projects are collaborative endeavors crossing disciplines. Nevertheless, a general classifying of projects yields seven broad domains of research activity. Each is identified below, with representative current research project topics delineated.

  • • Research on causes and consequences of alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use, including studies on the scope, causes and consequences of alcohol and illicit drug use in the work-force and work-place; attempted suicide and alcohol dependence; alcohol and the activation of aggressive thoughts; the initiation and continuation of drinking and driving behavior; concurrent and separate use of malt liquor and marijuana; and the application of behavioral economics and ecological momentary assessment to physical activity and marijuana use.
  • • Biological and neuroscience research, including studies on the effects of negative consequences on drug self-administration in rats; stress and endocannabinoids in serotonin neurons; dopamine function after prenatal ethanol exposure; evaluation of neuropeptide Y as a target for cocaine dependence; inhibitory control and clinical response in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); neurocognitive rehabilitation in alcohol treatment; drug abuse and impulsivity; and peripheral biomarkers of cocaine dependence and relapse.
  • • Research on gambling behavior, including studies on the development of gambling and alcohol use in youth; behavioral couples therapy for pathological gamblers; a national survey on gambling and substance use among youth; and national changes in problem gambling over the past decade.
  • • Gender-related research, including studies on reducing violence against women with alcoholic partners; affect regulation training for pregnant smokers; the role of gender and sexual identity in alcohol use and victimization; changes in women's human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) risk following alcohol treatment; the alcohol and victimization link among college women; the prevention of alcohol-related sexually transmitted diseases (STD)/HIV and assault; and college sports involvement, gender and substance use.
  • • Dissemination and professional training research, including studies on the dissemination of a motivational interviewing-based treatment preparation technique; knowledge exchange and skills training for therapists; and linking advanced practice centers and local health departments.
  • • Treatment research, including studies on emotional processing as a change mechanism in alcohol treatment; skills training for parents of adolescent drug abusers; impulse control as a mechanism of change in the treatment of alcohol dependence; the development and evaluation of an anger management treatment protocol in alcoholism treatment; developing mindfulness-based stress reduction for application in alcoholism treatment; therapeutic alliance as a change mechanism in alcoholism treatment; the use of a brief motivational intervention to promote oral health among alcohol abusers; affect regulation training for alcoholics; help-seeking for alcohol problems; and mechanisms of change, motivation and treatment outcome among alcohol-dependent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients.
  • • Research on youth, families, and relationships, including studies on alcohol, health and relationships; alcohol, relationship conflict and intimate partner violence; binge drinking in couples and intimate partner violence; the effects of prenatal and environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) exposure on child regulation; vulnerability factors and drinking in adulthood; adolescent alcohol use, sexual assault and STD/HIV risk; spouse and peer influences in alcohol use during early marriage; maternal substance use and toddler self-regulation; and parenting and infant development in alcoholic families.

The development of our current scientific agenda results from multiple influences. First, it reflects natural advances within longer-standing programmatic lines of research being pursued by our individual scientists or subgroups of them. Indeed, a major contributor to our successes as a research institute is that our scientists are relatively free to set and follow their own scientific agendas. Secondly, our current research agenda also reflects systematic pursuit of new research areas prioritized by the scientific staff via targeted hires intended to extend our research portfolio (into a new substantive area or through a new research technology) and bring a synergistic interface into play with existing lines of research.


We would humbly, and with gratitude, offer that most days at RIA are good days, and in fact typically very good days. It is difficult to describe in words the wonderfully creative, supportive and interactive environment that exists at the Institute. It is this overall environment that facilitates the array of important work and contributions that have emanated from RIA over the years. Relatedly, the environment contributes to a remarkably low turnover rate among the senior scientific staff. The environment is enhanced by an array of resources in support of the scientific endeavor, including the variety of infrastructure staff who make major contributions to the conduct of RIA's research studies.

So just what is it that makes for the creative and productive environment that exists at RIA? Recognizing that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, we believe that the following, operating in concert, are central and essential factors:

  • • a remarkable constellation of bright, creative, and energetic scientists who bring passion to their work and who genuinely enjoy working with each other;
  • • a collegial, supportive, and respectful environment;
  • • scientists who represent multiple disciplines and appreciate the benefits of multi-disciplinary approaches to thinking about and studying addictions-related phenomena;
  • • scientists who work full time at RIA—the Institute is the home base for all of our scientists, precluding the split loyalties that sometimes can occur when a scientist is part-time with an academic department and part-time with a research center;
  • • the array of resources provided in support of the research enterprise, including the research facilities and the variety of infrastructure staff;
  • • remarkably low turnover among the senior research scientists and the infrastructure staff; and
  • • an administrative philosophy that aspires to buffer scientists as much as possible from bureaucratic requirements so that scientists can devote the vast majority of their time to research-related activities.

Cloudy days are relatively rare, but not unexperienced. Such days are often created for individual scientists by a discouraging critique of one's grant application or of one's manuscript submission. However, these are not particularly unique experiences among those engaged in the research enterprise. For the Institute as a whole there are periodic stressful periods, such as those associated with the annual New York State budgetary process. In recent years, RIA has experienced an annual reduction in its State allocation, reflecting difficult economic conditions. While these budget reductions in our State allocation have not resulted in actual personnel losses, they have blocked our pursuits into new areas of research and our recruitment of additional scientists.


We anticipate following multiple paths in upcoming years, reflecting our individual as well as collective perceptions as to important topics that should be covered in the future. Our current domains of research focus, delineated earlier, are robust, and we will be building upon them programmatically. We fully expect that these pursuits will open exciting new avenues of inquiry. A short listing of research proposals under development includes study of energy drink use, problem drinking and other substance use; assessing marijuana's role in young heterosexual women's risk for HIV; addiction propensity after prenatal ethanol exposure; neurochemical and behavioral correlates of serotonergic-glutamatergic interactions; psychometric analysis of gambling scales; gambling and substance use among Native Americans; help-seeking and the course of risky alcohol involvement among sexual minority women; development of a model to facilitate implementation of existing treatment protocols of 10–12 sessions in community settings; enhancing therapeutic alliances in alcoholism treatment; parent skills training in adolescent residential substance abuse rehabilitation; employing heart rate variability (HRV) training to improve impulse control during treatment for alcohol dependence; problematic alcohol use in unmarried cohabiting couples; reactive aggression in adolescence; partner, social network and neighborhood influences on substance use in newlyweds; sexual harassment, alcohol use and sex as pathways to adolescent victimization; men's alcohol use and perpetration of sexual aggression; and intimate partner violence, alcohol and self-control processes.

Beyond the above, we look forward to productive collaborations with our colleagues throughout the UB community, continuing with those collaborations that exist now and forging new ones. Some of these are being fostered through the rapid development of the BNMC, and especially through the increasing presence of the UB health science schools within the BNMC. UB, in collaboration with multiple partners in the BNMC (including Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which is involved in a variety of research on smoking behavior), is competing for a national Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA), and RIA is a partner in that effort. Receipt of this award would create a clinical and translational research center that will serve as an integrated academic home of clinical and translational science in the Buffalo area, providing innovative research tools, support, training resources and coordination.

In sum, we are excited about our upcoming research endeavors, individually and collectively, and look forward to our continuing contributions and service to the field of addictions.

Declarations of interest



Development of this paper has benefited from inputs and contributions from a number of members of the RIA scientific and administrative/infrastructure staffs. The Institute expresses its appreciation to the external funding agencies that have generously supported our research endeavors, and especially the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We also express our appreciation to Dr Satish K. Tripathi, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University at Buffalo, for his support of the Institute and its research activities.