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Originally published April 9, 2012 at 7:07 PM | Page modified April 10, 2012 at 5:02 PM

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Federal stimulus funds amounted to a shot in the arm for science

Researchers in Washington state have received nearly $900 million since 2009 in federal stimulus funds. The money has bought innovation, as well as job creation.

Seattle Times science reporter

Information

Information on all stimulus grants, including those for science: www.recovery.gov

Stimulus money propels research in Wash.

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When Congress and the Obama administration decided to boost funding for science as part of the economic-stimulus package, they were no doubt hoping for projects like Joan Sanders'.

With a grant of almost $1 million, the University of Washington bioengineer developed a diagnostic tool to help improve the fit of prosthetic legs. Then she filed for a patent, partnered with local companies to design and produce the devices, and landed $3 million in follow-up funding to develop a portable version for the military.

The grant paid all or part of the salaries for six people in Sanders' lab, and she's optimistic her new instrument will go into commercial production. If so, that would create more jobs and bring royalties to the UW.

"The stimulus funding really launched us to the next level," Sanders said. "This technology never would have come together without it."

Sanders is among hundreds of researchers across the state who shared in a nearly $900 million windfall for science since stimulus money started flowing in 2009. The University of Washington alone pulled in more than $370 million and led the nation in stimulus funding for biomedical research.

Like Sanders' grant, much of the money went to projects with quick payoffs in medicine or technology. But many have a longer-term focus, including establishment of a new genome science center at the UW, expansion of an ocean-observing system, and the purchase of electron microscopes and other equipment at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Though Washington didn't land funding for any new research buildings, the region did reap a major upgrade of earthquake- and volcano-monitoring networks.

"The stimulus funding has had an incredible impact," said Mary Lidstrom, UW's vice provost for research. "I can't stress enough what it meant for the training of graduate students ... and I think we're going to see a lot of innovations coming out of this work."

But Paul Guppy, vice president of research for the conservative Washington Policy Center, says science doesn't fit among the "shovel-ready" projects meant to create jobs and help pull the country out of the deepest recession in decades.

"The idea was: We're rushing this money out the door because we're in an economic crisis," said Guppy, whose group argues that government stimulus spending is not effective at creating economic growth.

Good things can come from government-funded research, he said, but it's a slow process — and not how the stimulus was sold to the public.

More than jobs

Though job creation was the most touted goal of the $840 billion bill, another was "to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health." About 6 percent of the money — more than $52 billion — was earmarked for science, technology development and environmental restoration.

The biggest share — nearly $37 billion — was funneled through the Department of Energy for research on clean energy, power-grid studies and cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation, among other projects. The rest went to agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Simple math shows the money didn't create an employment bonanza in Washington. At its peak, science stimulus funding saved or created the equivalent of about 1,300 full-time jobs here. That pencils out to more than $690,000 per job.

But that calculation ignores public benefits from the research, indirect job creation, administrative costs and the cost of equipment and supplies, which always makes up a large chunk of science budgets.

For example, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland got $60 million to buy state-of-the-art microscopes, spectrometers and other instruments for its Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. The number of local jobs created was small, but more than 700 scientists and engineers from across the country use the federal facility every year, explained director Allison Campbell.

Many of the new microscopes are so sensitive they can see individual atoms and so sophisticated they allow scientists to watch chemical processes unfold, like the changes that occur as power drains from a battery.

"If we can understand why batteries fail ... maybe we can use that to help reduce the cost of electric cars," Campbell said. "I see it as accelerating the innovation we're able to do as a nation."

The job calculus is complicated by the fact that university researchers usually patch together salaries by juggling multiple grants. So while the UW lists the equivalent of about 560 full-time jobs, administrators say the stimulus money actually paid at least part of the salaries of 2,800 people.

One of those is Zoya Bauer, who was facing the prospect of unemployment as the UW research project she was working on drew to a close. But she landed a new job helping manage a $10 million stimulus project. The goal is to figure out the most effective treatments for lower-back pain in the elderly.

Bauer is working with HMO networks to enroll 5,000 people in a national patient registry, then analyze their medical experiences to answer questions such as: Are steroid injections, with their dangerous side effects, more effective than a simple anesthetic in alleviating pain for people with certain back problems?

"It's very important work," Bauer said, "And for me, personally — I'm very thankful."

Every job in biomedical research has the spinoff effect of generating another 2.2 jobs indirectly, said Lorrie Jo Brown, a senior forecast analyst for the Washington Office of Financial Management. And an extra $900 million injected into science would lead to a total economic boost of about $2.1 billion as the money trickles down, she estimated.

But even the federal government acknowledges it's hard to quantify the economic costs and benefits of research. Several agencies recently launched a program called Star Metrics to try, starting with the stimulus funding. No results are available yet.

"Smart" prostheses

Many of the research projects funded by the stimulus, including Sanders', barely missed the cut for earlier funding. The approach she proposed was unusual, with no guarantee it would work.

"The stimulus let us pursue what at the time was a wild idea," she said.

The tool she developed measures the daily swelling and shrinkage in amputees' stumps. Those fluctuations can lead to discomfort and sores as the stump rubs against the prosthesis. Eventually, Sanders hopes the technology can be incorporated into artificial limbs that automatically detect and respond to changes, by inflating a cuff or making other adjustments. In the interim, her instrument can help doctors and amputees find the best fit.

Dr. Dedra Buchwald's stimulus project also yielded a product, albeit less tangible. With a $7.6 million grant, she and her UW colleagues have so far enrolled nearly 8,000 pairs of twins in what will be the nation's most extensive such database. Twins are invaluable for tackling nature-versus-nurture questions, and Buchwald hopes user fees will help maintain the registry as a resource open to scientists around the world.

With the stimulus money petering out, many researchers are scrambling to keep their projects afloat. But the drop in funding won't be as abrupt or steep as feared, said the UW's Lidstrom.

Federal science agencies relaxed the requirement that all money be spent within two or three years, giving labs some breathing room and staggering project end dates. And though the total dollar amount is impressive, spread over two years the stimulus money amounted to only about a 15 percent annual bump for the UW, which brings in more than $1 billion a year in federal research money.

Scientists are used to chasing grants, though the pursuit had gotten more competitive in recent years, said Norman Lewis, a biological chemist at Washington State University. He received $2.8 million in stimulus money to pursue a lifelong dream: Teasing apart the cellular pathways plants use to produce medically important chemicals, such as quinine, morphine and the breast-cancer drug taxol.

Lewis and several collaborators have worked their way through more than 30 plants so far, sharing the results via a public website. The hope is that the chemical blueprints will improve or enable synthetic-drug production, and perhaps lead to discovery of new treatments, Lewis explained. "We've opened a huge treasure trove of information."

But no decent scientist is ever done exploring. Lewis now hopes to unravel key plant genes that code for the drugs. His team will analyze as many more species as possible before their stimulus grant ends Sept. 1.

Then some of the folks in his lab may face uncertainty about their jobs, while Lewis pounds the pavement for funding.

"This is part of the challenge we face all the time, but I think we've got a good story to tell," he said. "The stimulus funding really allowed us to get far."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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