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Stimulus boosts research funding at University of Utah and Utah State University

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 3 2010 12:18 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks largely to federal stimulus spending, 2009-10 was a banner year for research funding at Utah's two major research universities.

Funding for research leaped 27 percent to $450 million at the University of Utah and 29 percent to $187 million at Utah State University.

At the U., money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 accounted for $82.2 million of the $95.9 million increase. Roughly a quarter of the stimulus funding will go to two major infrastructure projects: $8 million toward an $18 million, 44,000-square-foot addition to the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building and $13.4 million for the Utah Education Network to expand fiber-optic connections between schools, Head Start centers and libraries.

Other projects include a $6.4 million study of carbon dioxide sequestration, a $2 million effort to convert biomedical research into clinical treatments and $1.6 million toward an upgrade of a gamma ray telescope in Arizona used by U. physicists. The university has leaned heavily in recent years on funding from the National Institutes of Health to underwrite the massive expansion of its health sciences programs, but is now looking to diversify its research efforts with more projects in defense and intelligence, the environment and social sciences.

The U. collected $49.2 million from private industry and $22.5 million from associations and foundations, both increases from the prior year. "Even if you took the stimulus out, it was our best year ever," said Tom Parks, vice president for research.

Brent Brown, director of the Office of Sponsored Projects at the U., said that level of support from the private sector during an economic downturn was "astounding."

"It was a difficult year for our industrial partners," Brown said. He noted that many private companies sponsor continuations of basic, federally funded research that has already started to pan out. The U. has touted the high rate of commercialization of its faculty's projects.

At USU, the stimulus provided $12 million of a $42 million increase in research funding. The university hired five grant writers in 2008 to staff a new Office of Proposal Development and now says the investment has paid off, with proposals up 22 percent over last year.

A large chunk of the new money, $10 million, went to the USU Research Foundation for its Space Dynamics and Energy Dynamics laboratories. Other funds went into research to improve hearing aids, to find geothermal energy sources on the Snake River Plain in Idaho and to create biofuels from algae found in the Great Salt Lake.

Officials from both schools admitted to some concern that as they show success in finding external sources of revenue, state legislators will take that as a cue to further cut higher education, which was slashed 12.5 percent overall this year. At the U., funding for state-sponsored research sank 23 percent to $14.8 million.

"Research universities derive a large amount of funding from the federal government and may be viewed as having other alternatives," said Brent Miller, vice president for research at USU.

But Parks, his counterpart at the U., said that without state support to maintain facilities and pay faculty competitive salaries, "We wouldn't be able to (attract) any research money."

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

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