Stimulus cash to give scientific research at UW, elsewhere big shot in arm
While state universities brace for tuition increases and layoffs on the one hand, the other hand is dipping into an unprecedented pot of cash for science. The University of Washington estimates it could receive a windfall of up to $300 million in federal research money under the stimulus package Congress passed earlier this year.
Seattle Times science reporter
While the state budget crisis likely will force tuition increases and layoffs at state universities, a new pot of federal money for science promises to give research programs a once-in-a-lifetime boost.
The University of Washington estimates it could receive a windfall of up to $300 million in federal research money under the stimulus package Congress passed this year.
Other research institutions also are vying for a share of the $21.5 billion earmarked for research and development.
"This is an amazing time for science" said UW genomics professor Deborah Nickerson, who applied for money to study the genes that make people react differently to medications. "There's never been anything like this in my entire career."
From the world-famous Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to tiny biotechs, researchers are scrambling to update "beaker ready" research proposals, forge collaborations and figure out the best way to land a slice of the pie.
"We're going to be working practically 24/7 on proposals for the next several weeks," said Lynne Chronister, director of the UW office that helps faculty members find funding.
A $300 million boost would translate into 1,500 to 2,000 new or saved jobs, said Vice Provost for Research Mary Lidstrom. But federal research money can't be used to make up for the deep cuts in higher-education funding proposed by lawmakers to help balance the state budget, she said.
With a few exceptions, it's illegal to spend research money on teaching.
Most of those who now face layoffs are administrators and support staff. The new money mainly will pay for scientists, research technicians and graduate students. But it also will create summer work for students, and possibly construction jobs, Lidstrom said.
Since the goal of the $787 billion stimulus package is to create jobs and kick-start the economy, researchers will have to document such financial spinoffs from their projects.
Top priorities include biomedical research with the potential for near-term payoffs, energy research and development, climate-change studies and science that boosts the country's economic competitiveness.
About $3.5 billion will be spent on big-ticket scientific equipment, lab renovation and construction.
In the Pacific Northwest, volcano monitoring and earthquake studies will receive a big boost. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has major research facilities in Seattle, will step up spending on underwater surveys, coastal and marine habitat restoration, vessel upgrades, climate modeling and new satellite instruments.
"This is going to be a big bump," Lidstrom said. "It's fantastic."
The money reflects the Obama administration's view that science and technology are major economic drivers, said Howard Grimes, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Washington State University.
"Science is once again seen at the federal level as part of the solution to society's problems," said Grimes, who hopes WSU will receive as much as $100 million in stimulus funds.
The university's wish list includes a $50 million agricultural-research science building and $10 million to help build a lab where scientists will study how diseases jump from animals to humans.
Most winning proposals won't be known for several months. But money already is flowing in some cases.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), in Richland, is receiving an initial $124 million through the Department of Energy.
The money will go for high-tech instruments such as nuclear magnetic-resonance spectrometers at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, where researchers from across the U.S. experiment on everything from microbes to mop up contaminants to new semiconductors.
PNNL also will upgrade and expand a network of stations to study the role of clouds and atmospheric particles in climate change.
The lab is a research leader in advanced power grids, energy efficiency and techniques to trap carbon emissions underground. It expects $75 million to $200 million more to accelerate that work, spokesman Greg Koller said.
Volcano monitoring, ridiculed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in the Republican response to the stimulus package, will receive an additional $15.2 million boost.
A "significant" part of that will be spent in the Pacific Northwest, mainly to upgrade the telemetry network relaying signals from instruments that measure ground shaking and deformation, said John Eichelberger, the U.S. Geological Survey's Volcano Hazards Program coordinator.
"We need this system before we can get more data from the volcanoes," he said.
The agency also will conduct aerial laser surveys that can reveal areas vulnerable to volcanic mud flows. More than $29 million will be invested in earthquake monitoring nationwide, allowing replacement of many antiquated seismic stations in Washington and Oregon.
But the bulk of the science money will go to individual research projects. To speed the flow of cash, most of which must be spent within two years, federal agencies are reconsidering proposals that just missed the cut in leaner times.
UW mechanical engineer Eric Seibel was preparing to shut his lab after losing out on a National Institutes of Health grant. Then an e-mail said he could expect $900,000 in stimulus funds.
"My family tells me I'm the first person they know who's benefited from the stimulus package," he said.
The money will extend his work on a laser endoscope, a tiny camera that can be swallowed like a pill. In the prototype he's testing on laboratory rats, the laser scans the inside of organs and ducts for the first signs of cancer. Seibel dials up the laser's power to zap the malignancy.
"That could possibly stop the cancer from progressing," he said.
Combined with money from other sources, the stimulus funds will allow Seibel to keep four to five engineers and students employed.
In addition to direct job creation, research funding reverberates through the economy in many ways, including spinoff companies and the potential to prime the pump for new industries, such as biofuels and clean technology, Lidstrom said.
UW receives about $1 billion a year for research and leads public universities in federal research dollars.
While biomedical funding at most universities has been flat for several years, the UW's share increased through 2007, said Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and dean of the School of Medicine.
That reflects the high value put on the work done in Seattle and means local scientists will stand an excellent chance in the stimulus competition, he said.
"Biomedical research has the best potential we've ever had in history to make the discoveries that will lead to new cures and new ways to prevent disease," Ramsey said.
Working with Hutch
In collaboration with the Hutchinson Center and others, the UW submitted more than 40 proposals for costly equipment that could be shared by many scientists, along with about $50 million in construction requests, including a new animal-research facility and life-sciences lab.
An influx of money now also will help prevent future brain drain, by protecting young scientists who usually suffer most in economic hard times, said Nickerson, the genome researcher.
The only potential downside is the so-called "cliff effect": the concern that two years from now, when the stimulus money will be gone, people and projects will be yanked abruptly, WSU's Grimes said.
"It would be bad if this initial investment was not followed through," he said, "because two years is not a lot of time, and these problems are too big to expect overnight solutions."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:46 AM
Exxon Mobil wins ruling in Alaska oil spill case
NEW - 7:51 AM
Longview man says he was tortured with hot knife
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
"Iron Man 3" kicks off a summer blockbuster season that will see hundreds of speeding, squealing, exploding, airborne, rolling and smoking vehicles in...
Post a comment