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BY THOMAS K. GROSE AND BERYL LIEFF BENDERLY
ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGE
Feature image of G. Wayne Clough

COVER STORY

SHORING UP

Federal aid to states and grants to researchers may bring only temporary relief to universities.


When Robert C. Holub was installed last October as the 29th chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, his speech to faculty and students was distinctly bittersweet. Yes, he was able to cite a long list of faculty and student achievements, but he also had to address the school's dismal financial situation. Since the start of fiscal year 2009, UMass Amherst has had to cope with the loss of $71.2 million in state support. The only thing that eased the pain of the budgetary shortfall was the $34 million in federal "stimulus" funds it received that it could spend on operational costs.

But now comes the hard part, Holub said. He told his audience that the crisis's real impact wouldn't fully be felt until 2010, "when the absence of stimulus money and the low level of current state support will force us either to conduct ourselves in a different manner or to slash budgets to the point that the campus will no longer resemble the institution we cherish."

UMass Amherst's budget woes are only too familiar to many of the country's state-funded universities. Despite the welcome influx of billions of dollars from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the stimulus package approved by Congress early last year, public universities will very likely face deep fiscal problems for years to come, because of the long-lasting aftershocks of the "credit-crunch" recession. Moreover, while the ARRA injected a massive $21.5 billion into research, the one-shot nature of the funding means that many academic recipients of stimulus-sourced research grants could be left hanging once the cash is spent.

Their schools, however, will hit that funding brick wall much sooner. As Holub says: "Many public universities across the country will face a funding cliff next year when stimulus money dries up." State appropriations will most likely remain low, he says, so many schools will have to slash people and programs. "Some reductions in core areas appear inevitable . . . and the results of cutbacks could be felt for many years to come." Public universities, Holub says, including his own, "may have to change radically in order to survive."

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Stimulus Projects

Early last year, when the Obama White House and Congress were hammering out the details of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the nation's universities lobbied hard for including money for academic research. They argued that research leads to innovation, and innovation leads to job creation and a stronger economy - particularly in critical areas like energy, information technology, and healthcare - the main goals of the act. Their efforts paid off with the biggest single jump in basic research spending in U.S. history.

Federal funding agencies quickly put out guidelines for new proposals, but they also had plenty of "shovel-ready" proposals they would have funded earlier had the money been there. Thanks to the stimulus bonanza, many solid proposals that had previously been held up are now moving forward - leading, many hope, to future breakthroughs that will maintain America's technological, economic, and military edge.

The various engineering proposals that received stimulus money ranged widely. The following pages take a look at five of them: four engineering research projects, and one construction plan.


Enrollment Up, Funding Down

Daniel J. Hurley, a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, also said as much in a recent report that looked at the future of public schools in post-downturn America, noting: "The Great Recession has placed severe pressure on America's state colleges and universities, and comes at a time when these very institutions must play a central role in the nation's economic recovery." Meanwhile, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) kept up the drumbeat of bad news: Eighty-five percent of public universities were hit by budget cuts in FY 2009, it says, and 53 percent of its member schools are "pessimistic" about the short-term future.

They should be. As Hurley's report also points out, the bailout money came from the stimulus act's State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), and it was meant to help tide schools over through 2011. But most will have burned through their cash pile by this coming June 30 -- long before most states expect to see an upturn in tax revenues. Meanwhile, Hurley explains, "enrollment is surging at many state colleges." Utah's four-year university system has experienced an enrollment boom of 17 percent, while state funding has nosedived 17 percent. The result: State funding for each full-year student is down $1,300. Little wonder that Kristin Maloney, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States (ECS) in Denver, warns: "Caution should be used when spending state fiscal stabilization funds on programs or positions that require recurring funds. If states are not careful and thoughtful about how stabilization money is spent, they will face similar financial issues in two years."

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earth and internet image

Project #1

HOW ENGINEERS WORK

It has become a mantra that America's economic and technical well-being requires engineers who are ready for the rigors of a globalized workforce. But despite all the talk of needing to make engineering grads workforce-ready, says Aditya Johri, an assistant professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech, "no one has studied the engineering workplace at all. This is one of the gaps I want to fill." He's on his way, armed with a five-year, $406,987 National Science Foundation CAREER grant to investigate global engineering work practices. The fruits of his labors will be used to improve engineering curricula, with the aim of better preparing graduates for jobs in industry. Twenty-first-century engineers are finding themselves working in cross-disciplinary, world-spanning teams. Johri wants to know, "Who are the ones who have to wake up at 1 or 2 or 5, and who decides that? What is the power structure?"

Johri will also look at how information technology is changing how engineers work, how it's being used to share information, and how IT use varies around the world. Asians, for instance, make much greater use of cellphones.

This was Johri's first application for a CAREER grant. He was hopeful of getting funded, but the stimulus money clearly sped things up. He won approval within two weeks of submitting his proposal. The process usually takes six months.


What to do? UMass Amherst's Holub, in his installation speech, said his school would use the "grace year" provided by the stimulus funds to "develop additional revenue sources." Some of the steps he outlined echoed recommendations made in Hurley's report: attracting and enrolling more out-of-state students who pay higher tuitions; making greater use of summer sessions, both on campus and with distance-education courses; and placing more emphasis on professional and continuing education programs, including five-year master's programs.

“The one thing we do know is that without this money, there would have been substantial cuts in higher education” - Michael GriffithIn the meantime, while the SFSF money gave public schools more than a modicum of relief, the overall picture of exactly how the money was used remains murky. So far, $2.2 billion in SFSF money went to help public colleges and universities "just finish off the last school year," says Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at ECS. An additional $3.7 billion is now being doled out for the year that began in July. Each state, however, can decide how to handle its share, so overall patterns of expenditure are not clear. "The one thing we do know is that without this money, there would have been substantial cuts in higher education," Griffith says.

Billions for Research

Beyond the SFSF billions, tens of thousands of stimulus-funded research grants are flowing to investigators in every state and territory at institutions ranging from leading research universities to community colleges. ARRA gave research and development a massive boost: $18 billion for the conduct of R&D and $3.5 billion for facilities and equipment, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This comes on top of the research agencies' regular budgets, but much of the stimulus money must be spent within two years. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) got the biggest research jackpot with $10.4 billion, followed by $2.9 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $2.4 for the Department of Energy. Overwhelmingly, the resulting grants are going to the established academic research powerhouses.

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hurricane

Project #2

EYE ON HURRICANES

With the horrific devastation caused by 2005's Hurricane Katrina still fresh in our collective memory, most people understand the need to strengthen buildings in hurricane-prone areas. Toward that goal, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) gave the University of Miami $15 million to help finance a state-of-the-art Marine Technology and Life Science Research building that will house an 8,520-square-foot hurricane simulation lab, co-run by the College of Engineering and the School of Marine Science. The test bed, it is hoped, will allow engineers to understand better what happens to buildings when they're battered by wind, waves, and surges, resulting in better construction standards.

It will be unique in two key ways. It will be able to draw in seawater, and it will have a 3-D test platform. Miami's current 2-D facility can study only wind blowing perpendicular to a shoreline. With the 3-D lab, researchers can monitor winds from all angles, even those parallel as well as perpendicular to the shore. "It makes it much more real-world," explains Antonio Nanni, chairman of Miami's civil and architectural engineering department.

The total cost of the building is estimated at $45 million, and it has been on Miami's drawing board for some time. "The stimulus money became a catalyst," Nanni says, and quickened the pace of the project. Groundbreaking is expected early this year, and the building should be open for business some time in 2012. Adds Nanni: "It's a very aggressive schedule."


Also tucked into ARRA are some small but potentially influential provisions; for example, $15 million that NSF will devote to helping universities establish professional science master's degree programs. Already, 171 programs at 71 universities offer this relatively new degree, which aims to prepare students with scientific or technical training for a wide range of opportunities in industry, government, management, entrepreneurship, and other nonacademic careers. In another example, NIH is spending $100 million to fund new tenure-track positions in biomedical research in order to restart faculty hiring stalled by the economic collapse.

The ARRA package also provided $30 billion to boost direct aid to students and families. Of this, $17.1 billion will finance a $500 increase in the maximum size of individual Pell grants and $200 million will boost the Federal Work-Study program. An additional $13 billion will cover enhanced tax credits for families paying for higher education, including, for the first time, refundable credits to those with incomes too low to pay taxes.

SFSF, however, is by far the largest pot of money available to education. By 2010, the Department of Education will dispense a total of $53.6 billion intended mainly to help states make up recession-caused cuts to public education, at both higher-education and K-12 levels. Some $48 billion of it will be divided at individual states' discretion among local school districts and public colleges and universities.

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robot assisted surgical tool

Project #3

GOOD VIBRATIONS

When surgeons use a robotic-assisted surgical tool, they can guide the machine as it slices through tissue, but it won't feel quite right to them. That drawback may soon be rectified, thanks to the haptic, or touch-based, interfaces being developed by Katherine Kuchenbecker, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work enables humans to feel as though the tool they are wielding virtually - be it a scalpel or a wrench - is actually in their hands and being put to work. Our sense of touch is based on our hands detecting high-frequency vibrations. "We capture those signals and recreate them," she explains.

Beyond making robotic surgical tools feel more lifelike to users, Kuchenbecker wants to improve virtual-reality experiences. "Visually, they're really compelling, but (VR) has a harder time with the sense of touch." She envisions VR surgical training tools that let wannabe surgeons know exactly what it feels like to do, say, brain surgery, before they actually carve into someone's gray matter.

Kuchenbecker applied for her grant in July 2008, but though her proposal was very highly rated, she just missed the cut. She was readying a resubmission when she got an e-mail from the NSF saying that her initial proposal had now been approved, thanks to the extra money from the stimulus act. "And I hope to make the most of it," she says.


The higher education money, however, can pay only for operating costs, financial aid, and repair and upgrading of existing facilities. Universities, could, for example, use it to "mitigate the need for raising tuition," but not for "such things as increasing endowments; modernizing, renovating or repairing sports facilities; or maintaining equipment," explained J. Christopher Mihm, managing director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in congressional testimony in September. An additional $8 billion can pay to repair and renovate facilities at public and private colleges and universities to meet what the law calls "recognized green building" standards.

So what has ARRA actually produced thus far? By October 10, all recipients of stimulus money had to file the first of required quarterly reports. The data soon began to appear in searchable form at www.recovery.gov, which tracks stimulus grants, contracts, and loans down to the level of ZIP Codes and street addresses and aims to be "easy to use" by all Americans, according to the site. Other agencies such as NSF and NIH also have posted their stimulus projects in their online grants databases.

"This is the first time the federal government has attempted to provide such expansive accountability and transparency," claims www.recovery.gov. Not surprisingly, however, these vast data dumps garnered criticism for errors, inaccuracies, mind-numbing detail, and imperfect selection of topics and categories. Although the sites provide very finely grained information on particular recipients, projects, and localities, using them to draw more general conclusions about what is happening can be dauntingly laborious. "What the First Round of Recipient Reported Stimulus Data Tells Us: Not Much," commented Jennifer Cohen, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, in the title of an entry on its Ed Money Watch blog.

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cement bridge

Project #4

CLEVER CONCRETE

Someday, thanks to nanotechnology, roads may be paved with cement that's "smart" enough to monitor traffic flows - including the speed and weight of vehicles - as well as its own structural health, detecting cracks well before they're obvious to the naked eye. That could also help make bridges and "sensitive buildings," like nuclear power plants, safer. Xun Yu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, has been working with piezoresistive multi-walled carbon nanotubes mixed into concrete. The electrical resistance of the composite concrete is highly sensitive to stress and emits a detectable response. To continue that research, Yu applied for an NSF grant and got an award of $125,000 in stimulus money over two years.

Previous research proved the feasibility of his concept, Yu says. "Now, with this grant, we can continue to work on that, to understand the fundamental properties." He'll focus on "getting the mix right and (determining) the best fabrication methods." The composite concrete has to prove it can withstand extremes in temperatures and weather and won't lose its self-monitoring properties due to changes in humidity. Yu's grant also has an education element to it. He will be able to hire some undergraduate researchers and use the project to interest area high school students in technology. "We want to show them how technology can change their daily lives," he says.


A rather vague picture also emerges from a report, "Educational Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" issued in late October by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Education Department. In addition to the national SFSF totals, it lists state-level data. At $305,757,000, for instance, Florida led the reported SFSF higher education expenditures for 2009, while California, which reported no expenditure for that year, plans to spend a nation-leading $9,500,000,000 of SFSF money for higher education in 2010. But the report gives no specifics on where and how states would use the money. "Most of the states' applications show that they plan to provide the majority of education stabilization funds to [local school districts]" with the remainder of funds going to higher education, Mihm said in his testimony. Some states are allocating SFSF higher education funds on the basis of enrollment, he added, and others on the basis of budgetary needs at particular institutions.

And, Griffith cautions, the figures provided actually tell less than they appear to. States generally put their SFSF dollars "into the same pot" with the rest of their higher education money, he says. "You can't go to Michigan State University, where I went, for example, and pull out a professor and say, 'This engineering professor's salary is being paid by the stimulus.'" Not even a state's reports on how it is using SFSF funds give much detail, he adds, because "some states chose to cut state higher education funding and replace it with stimulus money" while others kept their own state higher education spending at higher levels and used stimulus funding elsewhere. A second round of applications, due in December, may reveal more about "what they spent and also what they intend to spend," he says.

Some insights have also emerged from visits last spring by GAO staffers to unspecified institutions of higher learning in a variety of states, Mihm said in his congressional testimony. A number of them "had not finalized plans" for spending the SFSF funds they would receive, "but most expected to use them for faculty and staff salaries" and to head off "difficult reductions" that would otherwise be necessary. Saving these jobs would prevent "increases in class size and [enable] the institutions to offer classes that students need to graduate." Some institutions also planned to use part of the SFSF money for financial aid. Others mentioned more local concerns, Mihm reported. New York City's Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, planned to buy energy-saving light bulbs and enhance its cramped quarters with new tutoring rooms and study lounges. Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia will beef up its E-learning capacity for its "rapidly increasing number of students."

It's easier to follow how ARRA research money was spent. NIH spent the great bulk of its money on proposals that already had been reviewed and found worthy, or on supplements to existing grants. It also spent $200 million on "challenge grants" for cutting-edge work that can be done in under two years. In late spring, an unexpectedly large flood of 21,000 applications overwhelmed the agency's reviewing apparatus. By fall, however, more than 12,000 grants to institutions in every state had been announced.

Top research universities accounted for the largest share, with Harvard and its associated hospitals and institutions getting more than 600 grants. The University of Pennsylvania and associated hospitals and the University of Washington and associated institutions both corralled more than 300. Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Washington and Michigan also ranked among the leaders in number of grants received. But less prominent institutions, including the University of Guam, Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, Stone Child College in Box Elder, Mont., and Candeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, N.D., also won a single grant each.

Big Winners

NSF's grants also "hit every state," agency spokeswoman Dana Topousis tells Prism. "The recovery act allowed us to go back and look at highly rated merit-reviewed proposals" that had gone unfunded because of lack of money. These received the bulk of the 4,700 grants awarded by the end of September. In addition, NSF was able to tap an account called Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction, so $400 million was spent on buildings and equipment, she said. In May, the agency's first major stimulus award went to build the Alaska Region Research Vessel, a specially designed 242-foot ship that will be constructed in a U.S. shipyard. In the research grant competition, topflight research institutions were again the big winners, with MIT scoring 48 stimulus grants, Stanford 42, Caltech 38, and Carnegie Mellon 31.

The problem for recipients of the research-grant bonanza, however, is this: It will tempt lab chiefs to bring on new grad students and postdocs for whom future funding and, eventually, permanent career positions, cannot be assured. "We worry about that 'cliff' effect," says Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, referring to the potential for a precipitous drop-off in funding - and in employment opportunities for lab staff - after ARRA cash runs out. "We saw that after the NIH doubling" between 1995 and 2005, when funding rose rapidly and then abruptly leveled off, leaving many scientists suddenly out of support, he says.

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microscopic view of pink plastic

Project #5

HIGH-PERFORMING PLASTICS

If Eric Cochran's research turns out as predicted, the process he's working on to develop a new class of polymers could result in plastics that combine two characteristics. They could, for example, be "both tough and elastic," he says. Cochran, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University, is putting his idea to the test with a five-year, $475,000 CAREER grant from the NSF that's funded with stimulus money.

Cochran's polymers will be composed of block copolymers - he calls them the building blocks of new materials - that have been grafted onto layers of nano-sized silicate particles, or clay. The particles are typically covered in water, but his process replaces the water with chemicals that enable polymers to form. "We're essentially growing polymers directly on the surface of the particles." Changing the properties of nano-sized particles can have a big effect because the nanocomposites have a high surface-to-volume ratio. The expected result should be high-performance, high-service temperature thermoplastics. Another potential application would be "high-performance packaging materials that are impermeable to oxygen and water," Cochran explains.

Cochran's winning grant proposal was a 2008 resubmission of one initially rejected in 2007. The resubmitted proposal just missed getting funding, he was told by the NSF, which promised to OK it if additional money became available. When the stimulus money came in, the agency kept its word. Cochran says: "It was exceptional timing."


Patrick J. Clemins, director of the AAAS's R&D budget and policy program, says the government's funding agencies are aware of the problem, and some have taken steps to help mitigate it. For instance, the NSF, a major funding agency for engineering research, doled out its grants in ranges of between two and five years, so that not all of them would come due at once. "So for them, the cliff is more like a slope," he explains. NIH, however, gave out all its cash in two-year chunks.

Toiv says: "We continue to work with the administration and Congress to encourage them to keep appropriations at a level to prevent that cliff effect." No one knows if such a permanent boost will be possible, however. "We know that the administration and Congress will be facing a challenging fiscal situation" in the years ahead, Toiv adds. Indeed, as Clemins says, while the NSF was supposed to be on the receiving end of a doubling of its research budget, it's not at all clear that will now happen. This would require annual increases of 7 percent or more until 2016, at a time of mounting political pressure to control federal spending.

The precarious state of the future of those research grants isn't lost on Roger Ghanem, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California. He's received part of a $1.2 million, three-year NSF grant (the rest is split among researchers at Columbia and Texas Tech universities) to determine the viability of carbon dioxide sequestration.

Half of America's electricity comes from coal-fired plants, and the United States still has vast deposits of coal. But burning coal is a major producer of CO2, a main greenhouse gas. Advocates of "clean coal" technology, however, say that plants could be fitted with carbon-capture technology and the offending carbon could then be sequestered, pumped many miles below ground for permanent burial. But is that too risky a solution? That's what Ghanem's project aims to find out. If a major leak occurred, the released carbon could pose both health and pollution problems. To fully understand how buried carbon will react over many millenniums, Ghanem's team will have to rely on highly complex predictive models that will require extraordinary computational power to work. It's a "vibrant" area of research, he says. But he knows that doesn't guarantee a funding renewal once the stimulus money is gone.

"Yes, of course, I am worried" about that possibility, Ghanem says, and then adds, philosophically: "but not too much -- conviction, patience, and persistence are key for making things happen, and one must be robust enough to survive both ups and downs." And that's a lesson from the School of Hard Knocks that America's state-funded universities are also having to learn.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom. Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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