PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The most powerful institutions in Rhode Island health care announced Tuesday they’ve reached a deal to streamline how they collaborate on medical research, calling it a major step forward after years of inefficiency.

The newly signed agreement between Brown University and the state’s two largest hospital systems, Lifespan and Care New England, is the most significant joint move by the three organizations since Attorney General Peter Neronha scuttled a proposed merger between the hospital giants last winter.

“The simple principle that we are leveraging is we are better and stronger together than we are individually,” Dr. Mukesh Jain, Brown’s dean of medicine and biological sciences, told 12 News.

Brown had been a strong supporter of the hospital merger, citing years of complaints that the organizations are too siloed, hampering efforts by local researchers to work together on promising discoveries. In the wake of Neronha’s decision, leaders of all three institutions said they would look for other ways to come together short of a full merger.

That culminated in the new aligned research collaboration (ARC) agreement, signed earlier this month and announced Tuesday, under which the two hospital systems “agreed to align their research operations with Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine.” It envisions a future where scientists and physicians handle the paperwork and other administrative aspects of major research projects through a single entity rather than three separate ones.

“Currently, if a Brown-based researcher needs to collaborate with a hospital-based faculty member to complete the goals of grant-funded research, they have to work within the often duplicative processes of each system,” said Ronald Aubert, who is serving as interim dean of the Brown’s School of Public Health while its permanent dean, Dr. Ashish Jha, is on assignment at the White House.

“What we hope to accomplish as we work through the operations piece of this collaboration is to empower our scientists, public health experts and physicians to do their research, not more paperwork,” Aubert said.

The announcement comes as all three institutions are going through significant transitions.

Care New England is preparing to welcome a new CEO, Dr. Michael Wagner, who will succeed Dr. James Fanale at the start of next month. Lifespan’s longtime CEO, Dr. Timothy Babineau, resigned unexpectedly earlier this year and has yet to be replaced.

Meanwhile, Brown President Christina Paxson has been embarking on an effort to enhance the university’s reputation and productivity as a research university, as laid out in a recent “Operational Plan for Investing in Research” that formalized Brown’s commitment to the effort.

Last June, Brown announced plans to build a new integrated life sciences building in the Jewelry District, near its medical school and the hospitals. Brown will also be an anchor tenant in a newly announced biomedical facility anchored by a new state health lab, and just leased wet lab space in Wexford’s 225 Dyer St. building.

“All of these really are starting to build momentum for a health sciences district, if you will,” Jain said. “The Jewelry District will really have a robust presence of health sciences, and all of that together will hopefully attract private partnerships along with these public efforts.”

The new ARC agreement calls for Brown, Lifespan and CNE to create a four-member Joint Executive Council — led by Jain — which will oversee the unification of their research efforts over the next 18 months, including setting out shared rules and regulations.

The two hospital groups, which have been struggling financially, are making no commitment to increase research funding as part of the plan. But Brown has agreed to up its spending by $20 million to $25 million once the Joint Executive Council has the unified operation up and running. They also hope the simplified administrative structure will help secure larger grants.

Jain said he is particularly hopeful about the potential for Brown researchers to make new discoveries in two areas: aging and age-associated disorders, such as cancer and brain health, and immune biology, which is getting more attention after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have really a deep bench across our community,” he said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook