U.Va. Researchers Lead the State With $58.3 Million in Stimulus Funding

December 10, 2009 — University of Virginia researchers have won $58.3 million in new grants through the federal stimulus program, leading all other public universities in the commonwealth for this type of funding.

About two-thirds of that money is designated for biomedical research and comes from the National Institutes of Health, which received from Congress the biggest influx of funds to stimulate research. U.Va.'s large, research-oriented medical center puts it at a distinct advantage within the state for winning medical and health-related grants, while its extensive nonmedical research programs also attract substantial federal support.

Since February, when Congress passed the $787 billion federal stimulus package and designated $21.5 billion for research and development, U.Va. researchers have submitted 533 proposals for an array of research projects, from medicine to nursing, astronomy to physics, engineering to education, biology and beyond.

At present, 137 of these projects have received stimulus funding from a variety of federal agencies, from NIH to the National Science Foundation, as well as the federal departments of Defense and Energy and others.

"We organized early; we aggressively pursued available opportunities; we had strong proposals from our faculty – all of which resulted in success that outpaced our projections," said Colette Sheehy, vice president for management and budget.

Funded projects range from thousands of dollars to millions, including a $3.2 million grant to study genetic contributors to diabetes and dyslipidemia in African-Americans, a study to improve the healing of diseased or damaged vascular systems, a study of extrasolar planets, and an investigation into the connections between classical and quantum mechanics.

"The exceptional success of U.Va. researchers in this intensely competitive process is a reflection of the world-class talent at this university and U.Va.'s ability to produce innovation that benefits the state and nation," said Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research.

The amounts awarded to U.Va. surpassed its original projections, said Jeff Blank, assistant vice president for research. "In terms of sheer dollar amounts won per proposal submitted, we compare very favorably to our peers throughout the state."

Virginia Commonwealth University, with a medical center but smaller basic science and engineering programs, has received about $28.3 million through the research stimulus program.

Virginia Tech has won about $26 million in stimulus funding for research. As a land-grant institution with large engineering and basic sciences departments, Tech garners a large share of its research funding from the commonwealth, and from the National Science Foundation and other nonmedical funding sources.

George Mason has won about $10.9 million in stimulus for research, and James Madison University is at $7.8 million. The College of William & Mary has garnered $6.2 million and Old Dominion University has won nearly $2.7 million. Christopher Newport University has one funded project for $650,000.

With the new funding, U.Va. researchers are gaining valuable insights into health care diagnostics and therapeutics, creating a more sustainable living environment, and understanding the evolution of the universe.

Astronomer Phil Arras won a stimulus grant of $246,000 from the National Science Foundation for a study of extrasolar planets.

"Generally the acceptance rate for proposals in astronomy is only about 15 percent, so this stimulus program is a terrific opportunity for researchers to win grants that otherwise would not be available," he said. "I now have money to hire a graduate student to help with the project, which should result in exciting new findings, and will allow me to make trips to conferences to present the work."

Many of the new stimulus grants are serving as one-time supplements to current research projects. According to Blank, U.Va. has been highly successful in the proposal process because its research strategies are closely aligned with national funding priorities, largely for biomedical research.

In recent years, U.Va. typically secures about $300 million to $325 million in federal research funding annually, Blank said, so the $58.3 million in stimulus money – which must be spent within a two-year period – represents a boost of an additional 15 percent or so for the research enterprise.

Stimulus funding for research is separate from the $10.7 million in stimulus funds awarded to the University earlier this year to offset state budget cuts. That money is being used to contain tuition increases for in-state students.

Funding through the stimulus program is intended to generate increased economic activity. It is expected that funding for research will eventually spin off into new companies and jobs, and, more immediately, is creating work for companies that produce research equipment and supplies. It also creates research jobs, which are good jobs for the state economy.

"We're seeing a funding ripple effect throughout the institution that should spin off into economic development," Blank said.

Federal stimulus money is awarded through an accelerated but rigorous peer-review process and 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 University also has applied for construction grants that would be used for renovations of buildings to accommodate multidisciplinary projects, a direction for U.Va. research that Skalak's office is strongly encouraging. Such funding would be good for the local economy by employing contractors and their workers.

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— By Fariss Samarrai