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Research Finding: Benchwork Is Big Bucks

By Mark Green

Western Kentucky University expects its recent acquisition of a large-chamber scanning electron microscope will bring more research dollars to campus.

Half billion dollars and growing, funded research at Kentucky’s universities is making headway and headlines in a very competitive sector. Academic research efforts vary from niche efforts concentrating on a few projects to hundred-million-dollar enterprises encompassing virtually every department at the larger universities.

There is science, yes, but much research work today deals with business, the humanities and more. Projects around the state are as varied as the backgrounds of the people who oversee them.

Research funding’s impact extends beyond campuses. In addition to potential effects a new medical treatment or new fuel might have, research brings in new businesses and jobs, and enhances the relationship between a university and its local community.

Barometers of success vary widely. The most common scale on a national level is the amount of money a school receives in funding. This has been a record year for the University of Kentucky, with research grants and contracts totaling nearly $3 million. Those funds come from a variety of sources, including more than half from federal agencies and the rest from state agencies and industry partners. UK’s expenditures for its research enterprise is $360 million.
Each year the National Science Foundation (NSF) publishes a survey that ranks the top universities according to how much they spend on research in the sciences and engineering. The most recent rankings for 2009 rank UK 30th among U.S. public universities and 49th among all universities.

A big portion of UK’s federal funding this year, $111.5 million, is through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. One high priority is the new Center for Applied Energy Research building off Iron Works Pike – which will open next spring – for which UK received $11.8 million in stimulus funds. With a national focus on “green” energy, a key project there is the new Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center, a partnership among UK, the University of Louisville and Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

“Biomedical research is our largest single area of activity, but we have many areas of research,” said Dr. James W. Tracy, UK vice president for research.
“We certainly are known for our energy research. It used to be mainly fossil fuels but now includes biofuels and batteries. And we’re known for our research in cancer, agriculture, computer science and equine.

“We have research projects that combine areas you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “For example, computer engineering and fine arts combined to create a computer-generated set for a production of ‘Porgy and Bess.’ That’s a very good example of interdisciplinary collaboration between unlikely partners.”

Direct benefits for Kentuckians
Pierce cited the HBEER (houseboat to energy-efficient residences) project as another example of combining talents of multiple departments and other agencies. Partners include UK’s College of Design; CAER; houseboat company Stardust Cruisers in Monticello, Ky.; the public sector Kentucky Housing Corp. and Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a venture capital operation. HBEER research has produced two prototype low-cost, energy-efficient modular homes and now offers the prospect of employment to some 1,000 Somerset-area residents laid off when the houseboat manufacturing industry stalled during the economic downturn.

“What I find truly remarkable about UK and the funding our world-class faculty researchers earn are the creative ways in which we use it to improve our commonwealth and push the boundaries of conventional thought,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “Each day we find new ways to translate our work in laboratories across our campus into effective solutions and devices that better our communities.”

UofL has seen its funding and its national recognition grow in recent years.
UofL’s 263.1 percent increase from 1999 to 2009 in federal funds for research and development in science and engineering ranks fourth nationally, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

UofL research made national headlines recently with three papers published on landmark discoveries. One regarded a clinical trial in which tissues implanted into a damaged heart regrew and reversed the damage. Another reported on research into electrical stimulation of a paralyzed patient who is now regaining the ability to walk.

While many of the commonwealth’s research grants come from such agencies as the National Institutes of Health, state funding is crucial as well.

“We work with the Council on Postsecondary Education and state government on both the legislative and executive side,” said Dr. William M. Pierce Jr., executive vice president for research and innovation. “The Research Challenge Trust Fund, known as Bucks for Brains, is hugely important to this state. And it’s a model nationwide. It matches state money with philanthropic funding, which amplifies the effect of the state money.”

Part of economic development strategy
“Research and development institutions are key components in Kentucky’s effort to grow our technology-based economy, because R&D drives technological progress and technology commercialization, both of which support the creation of high-tech companies and higher-paying jobs,” said Gene Fuqua, executive director of the Office of Commercialization and Innovation within the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. “Our top two research universities, UK and UofL, together in fiscal 2010 attracted more than $467 million in external funding for R&D, which by any measure is a significant contribution to Kentucky’s economy.”

Gov. Steve Beshear has been a strong supporter of Cabinet for Economic Development programs, such as the SBIR-STTR (Small Business Innovation Research – Small Business Technology Transfer)?Matching Funds program, which help attract and retain high-tech ventures, Fuqua said. Kentucky is the only state that fully matches federal SBIR-STTR grants to emerging tech-sector small business.

Fuqua offered nGimat Co. and Louisville Biosciences Inc. as examples of companies that moved to Kentucky due, in significant part, to cooperation between state government and the commonwealth’s research universities. nGimat moved part of its operations from Atlanta to Lexington to be near the Kentucky-Argonne battery research facility. Louisville Biosciences’ parent company in Oregon established it to develop technology licensed from the James Graham Brown Cancer Center at UofL.

Some of Kentucky’s smaller universities are finding their research programs being embraced and supported by companies and individuals in their communities in addition to funding from Frankfort and Washington, D.C.
Murray State University is one of them.

“We’ve really seen resurgence in community-based grants and some larger family foundations from this area,” said Dr. Jay Morgan, assistant provost of graduate education and research. “We’ve just completed our first commercialization project on a satellite emergency communication device that the university has licensed the right to sell to an off-campus group. While this kind of project is in its infancy, it will create some new jobs and help the economics of the region. We do have a lot of grant money dedicated to our telecommunications industry program. We partner with AT&T, Verizon and other cable companies to try to enhance telecommunications in the far western part of the state, which is quite rural.”

Ambitious projects at WKU
Western Kentucky University boasts a variety of research projects that are unique and that help boost the economy and support of its community. One of those is a large-chamber scanning electron microscope.

“It’s the largest of this type in this country that is not in the hands of the military,” said Dr. Gordon C. Baylis, WKU vice president for research. “We’re working with GM to study challenges in engineering that can’t be solved by any other method.”

GM’s Chevrolet division builds the Corvette in Bowling Green, and the fact that an entire engine block could fit into and be scanned by WKU’s electron microscope has generated discussion.

“It’s not just that it’s cutting edge, it’s that it really helps the industries around us,” Baylis said. “We’ve been very, very successful working with the state and local businesses in creating jobs.”

Western also provides weather information through its Mesonet, a meteorological network, which is used not only by forecasters around the state but a number of utility companies and state government departments.

“It’s fine-detail wea-ther-mapping and in-cludes 60 very advanced weather stations across the state,” Baylis said. “The state Transportation (Cabinet) can tell where snow is starting to stick to the road by using it. The Agriculture Department can monitor where a drought is the most severe.”

Kentucky and Oklahoma are the only states with such networks, he said.

Dr. Gerald J. Pogatshnik, associate vice president for research at Eastern Kentucky University, says he considers things other than financial impact in measuring research success.

“We’ve had two faculty members receive a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is extremely competitive. We also received a summer fellowship from the National Endowment for Humanities, which funded only 89 projects out of 1,023 submitted.

“Funding research is a means to an end,” Pogatshnik said. “One of the reasons for this office (created six years ago) was to facilitate external funding by faculty. Most smaller schools find it difficult to make research a priority. The driving force (for them) is recruitment and retention of students, which causes a conflict with time to pursue grant proposals and be successful.

At a larger institution the faculty member might be teaching two classes a semester, at a smaller one, probably three of four. It’s a challenge, but we’ve made great strides.”

At Northern Kentucky University, Bill Thompson, director of research, contracts and grants, said the school’s external funding was a blend of research and programs.

“We’ve had double-digit increases in outside funding the past few years. We’re targeting new agencies and trying to encourage faculty who don’t normally get involved in the process to get involved.”

Kentucky State University had more than $5 million in R&D expenditures in 2009. Its 205-acre Research and Demonstration Farm in southern Franklin County houses numerous research projects, including aquaculture, apiculture (beekeeping), horticulture and entomology. The format has been adopted in other states and has become a major networking and information-sharing program within the commonwealth.

In the private sector, Sullivan University’s recently launched College of Pharmacy in Louisville became fully accredited this summer, and already has secured some $200,000 in research funding. Sullivan’s Center for Nanotechnology Education, Research and Applications has hosted four international nanotechnology symposiums.

Morehead State University is one of only five U.S. schools  that offers a baccalaureate degree in space science, which is one of the school’s priorities in research.

Morehead receives grants from NASA because of the university’s space science center and research into areas such as small satellites and astrophysics, said Shannon L. Harr, director of research, integrity and compliance for Morehead’s Office of Research & Sponsored Programs.

“The National Institutes of Health is also one of our larger granting federal agencies,” Harr said. Morehead recently opened a new molecular lab, and along with six other colleges and universities is a part of the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, which is funded through the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence grant.

Program heads have walked the walk
The heads of Kentucky’s university research programs come from very different backgrounds, but having a personal history and passion for research is a common theme.

UK’s Dr. Tracy has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. He was one of the founding faculty when University of Wisconsin-Madison opened its School Of Veterinary Medicine, teaching and researching chemotherapy for human and animal parasitic diseases. He later led UW-Madison Select Agents Program, which handles biological agents and toxins with potential to be used in bioterrorism.

“I think one of the most important attributes for me and my peers is that most all of us have been in the lab,” Tracy said. “Being a former researcher gives us credibility with the faculty. My real function is not to run their departments but to make sure the people doing research have all the tools they need to be successful.”

UofL’s Dr. Pierce is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology with a joint appointment in chemistry. He earned his bachelor’s in chemistry and doctorate in pharmacology at UofL prior to postdoctoral work at Stanford. He conducts osteoporosis research and heads Pradama Inc., a start-up working to develop treatments for bone disease.

Western’s Dr. Baylis, a native of Great Britain, attended the University of Bristol, earning a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a DVM. He has a master’s in psychology from Sussex University, and earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Oxford. His research interests are in the area of cognitive neuroscience.

Dr. Morgan graduated from Murray, got his Ph.D. in agriculture at Oklahoma State and went back to his alma mater to start his teaching career.

“This is a lifelong dream,” Morgan said “I love research, and I enjoy promoting research with faculty and staff. But first and foremost, what I really enjoy is the innovation and creativity that research brings out.”