September 25, 2009 — When Congress passed the $787 billion federal stimulus package in February, it designated $21.5 billion for research and development. University of Virginia researchers responded with a flood of well-thought-out proposals.
"We've applied aggressively," said Jeff Blank, assistant vice president for research. "Now the money is starting to flow."
To date, U.Va. investigators have secured more than $38.7 million in stimulus funding for 102 projects across the research spectrum, from medicine to nursing, astronomy to physics, engineering to education, biology and beyond. Funding ranges from thousands of dollars to millions, including a $3.2 million grant to study genetic contributors to diabetes and dyslipidemia in African-Americans, led by medical professor Michele Sale.
Other funded projects include a study to improve the healing of diseased or damaged vascular systems, led by biomedical engineer Shayn Peirce-Cottler; a study of extrasolar planets by astronomer Philip Arras; and an investigation into Rydberg atoms to understand connections between classical and quantum mechanics, led by physicist Thomas Gallagher.
"The federal stimulus program is fostering new discoveries that will enhance dissemination of knowledge to the commonwealth, the nation and the world," Thomas Skalak, vice president for research, said. "Our researchers are gaining valuable insights into new potential health care diagnostics and therapeutics, creating a more sustainable living environment and discovering the origins of our solar system."
About two-thirds of the new money is from the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research, and most of the rest is through the National Science Foundation. Other sources include the departments of Energy and Defense. And more U.Va. proposals are under consideration, as others are being written.
"These new grants are providing important one-time supplements to current research projects," Blank said. "Fortunately our research strategies at the University are well-aligned with national funding priorities. We're seeing a funding ripple effect throughout the institution that should also spin off into economic development."
U.Va. secures about $300 million to $325 million in federal research funding in a given year, Blank said, so the $34 million in stimulus money – which must be spent within a two-year period – represents an additional 10 percent for the research enterprise.
This stimulus funding for research is separate from the $10.7 million in general stimulus funds awarded to the University earlier this year to offset general state budget cuts. That money is being used to contain tuition increases for in-state students.
"This new money is having a real and significant effect on both the University and the economy, which is the goal of the funding," Blank said. "The money is coming in, and it's being spent. This is good for our employees, our community and the U.S. economy as a whole as companies are put to work producing the equipment and supplies needed by researchers."
Doug Taylor, chairman of the biology department, said more than $1 million in stimulus funding to his department for a variety of projects has satisfied a "pent-up demand for laboratory equipment."
"We're buying a lot of high-tech equipment like confocal microscopes and equipment for genomics research. And we're also buying some of the basic things that were deferred, like tubes and tips. Labs were starving for equipment money and we've certainly been stimulated by this infusion of cash. That money has hit the ground running."
The point of stimulus funding is to generate economic activity to help pull the nation out of recession. The money is being administered by the usual major research funding agencies, such as NIH and NSF, and is awarded through an accelerated but rigorous peer-review process.
What is different about the stimulus grants, as compared to normal grants, is that investigators and their universities must follow strict rules for reporting exactly how the money is being used, and how it is creating and sustaining jobs. Even for equipment grants, investigators must estimate how many jobs were either retained or added by suppliers and manufacturers.
"The Obama Administration is being very careful about transparency," Blank said. "This money is not earmarked; it is won through competitive peer review processes."
The University also is applying for construction grants that would be used for renovations of buildings to accommodate multidisciplinary "big science" projects, a direction for U.Va. research that Skalak's office is encouraging at every turn. Again, such funding would be good for the economy by employing contractors and their workers.
"Research opportunities, along with key infrastructure investments in facility renovations and equipment, are aligned well with University strengths and position us favorably for future federal funding," Skalak noted.
The University also is receiving "reach back" funding from research submittals that previously earned meritorious reviews in nonstimulus proposals but went unfunded.
The state also has received new federal stimulus money for energy research. Blank said the University already has submitted four proposals for shares of those funds.
"As a result of the stimulus package, we are now seeing funding opportunities at levels we have not seen for a decade or more," Blank said. "There's a lot of variety in our approach, and we're well-positioned to tap even further into these new resources with research that spans our departments."
Biology chairman Taylor said he is pleased that the stimulus plan includes significant funding for research. "It says the federal government understands that science is a priority," he said. "This is a huge morale-booster."
For more information: http://www.virginia.edu/vpr/econ_stim.html